When I was 25 years old, I went mute. Not for a few seconds, not for a few days, or weeks, but months.
A conversation that went beyond a minute or two would have me in the throes of heart palpations, hyperventilation, and sweating. Talking, for me, evoked acute panic attacks, and more than one time ended with me in the fetal position in my bed hoping I would someday be normal again.
I learned to cope. I learned that not speaking was easier than holding my head between my knees and hoping no one noticed. Sure, I could manage at a grocery store or at a gas station, but anything involving a real conversation became utterly impossible.
This was a problem. After all, I had just moved to Los Angeles. I had nothing but a backpack, a car I borrowed from my folks, an ant-infested apartment and not a friend in sight. And I was beginning a job I knew nothing about.
When I found my way to Figueroa Street in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, and panicked over how I was to teach a group of juvenile delinquents without any training let alone without a voice, I locked myself in the school bathroom and cried. I cried for hours before getting the nerve to finally meet with the principal and muster a few words.
Mr. Escot was kind to me. He probably saw that I was terrified. I remember the only bit of advice he gave me was that power or confidence didn't come with size but with a voice. He was no taller than five feet. He didn't know at the time that I was mute, though now upon reflection I'm sure he suspected. Or maybe he thought I was incredibly shy. Either way, I do wonder how he had faith in a little white girl with no voice to teach a group of inner city black boys who certainly didn't have a problem using theirs.
My first assignment was a bit unique; and so began the first of many gifts afforded to me through teaching. I was to work with one student. He was 17 years old. He was over six feet tall and his name was Anthony. I learned that this 17-year-old Anthony was awaiting trial. He was allegedly involved in a gang shooting where one individual died.
This would be the second of many times I locked myself in the school bathroom and cried. I remember thinking I had nothing to offer this kid. I had no voice. No experience. I was just some girl with different coloured skin from him, in a foreign city, and at a school that could have been another universe.
Still, I eventually met Anthony. And every day I would listen. I couldn't talk because I was still dealing with panic attacks when I opened my mouth, so all I could offer was my ear. For six months I sat and listened to Anthony talk. And talk he did.
I learned that selling drugs out of a project-building window in order to support his family was not for me to judge. I learned that being a black kid in the ghetto was much like going to war every day. I learned that no matter how much or how hard Anthony desired to live a different life; it was was nearly impossible.
I learned that kids who grew up in the projects had never even made it to the beach, even though it was a half hour away. I learned that being 17 and illiterate was common, and worse, often accepted. I learned that even with his anger and agitation and criminal background, I had compassion and love for this kid. I also learned that a black kid who grew up in Compton, Los Angeles just needed a person to listen, even if it happened to be me.
I spent two years working at this school for kids awaiting trial. In that time I postponed my dream of becoming a writer, and began fulfilling a dream that I hadn't known about until I met Anthony and others like him.
After teaching in Los Angeles, due to Anthony, I had definitely found my voice. What he taught me was far superior to anything I could have taught him. What he was really talking about for six months was how an African American boy growing up in the United States didn't have a voice.
I would be remiss -- even if it's exceptionally cheesy -- if I didn't say I feel like I owe much of my life to Anthony. He was the kid who inspired me to become a teacher. And more than that, he gave me back my confidence and my voice.
The Purple Fig is a community where women share personal and relatable stories; no ego, no shame. We're about life, love and all of the stuff that makes us yearn, squirm, and giggle. These stories make up the authentic and intriguing journey of a woman.
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