As a child growing up, school was my respite from a dysfunctional family. In my family, it was not okay to “shine.” Anytime I did, I was told to shut up, and “Who do you think you are?” Most certainly not special, valuable, or worthy, I came to believe. “Children are meant to be seen, not heard!”
So, school was my respite from my life at home. I liked school. I did well in school. I got good grades. I was active in various clubs, and in 8th grade I was elected president of the honors society and president of the Leader’s Club. The Leaders Club is a club in which girls are chosen for their ability in sports and academics, and who demonstrate leadership qualities.
I’d been asked, as president of the club, to address the students, faculty, and parents at the annual fundraising dinner. So I got up to rehearse my talk in front of various students and faculty. I said a few words of welcome, thanks for coming to this fundraising event and for supporting this important cause. I’m feeling proud, important, and that I have some value — a very different experience from being at home. This is my respite.
As I’m walking off the stage, Miss Conally, the faculty advisor to the leaders club, calls out in this loud, obnoxious voice: “What was that? Can’t you do any better than that? What the hell is the matter with you! That sucked!”
I’m crushed. Shamed. It’s the reaffirmation of all the messages from my family — it’s not okay to shine, or to have a voice.
That’s the moment that I decide I’d better keep my head down, shut my mouth, play it safe.
This, then, becomes the guiding story for most of my life. I have let this fear and shame rule me. Until this year.
This year, I decided, I am finally going to face this fear, change this story. So I found the Speaker Sisterhood. I signed up. I showed up to my first meeting 2 weeks ago. I am no longer backing down from confronting this fear, which has kept me paralyzed most of my life.
It’s now the end of the first meeting. I realize that I don’t feel safe enough to stand up and tell my truth. What could I possibly say that would be honest, not sound ridiculous, and have meaning for the audience? I leave that night not convinced I’m coming back.
I go home and tell this story to my husband, Tim. In the process of that conversation, I recognize that whatever I might say, it’s not really about the audience at all. It’s about trusting myself and my own truth! And trust is an inside job.
So, when I see the email from the club leader saying there’s still an opening for a 5-minute slot at the next meeting, I decide, “I’m going to get up and tell this story.”
Three days later, I go to visit my sister’s house. My ailing parents are currently staying there, having come up from Florida, and need various kinds of medical care. It’s a stressful household. So I come, bringing dinner, remedies, and books. I come bringing cheer, love, and joy.
I get some time with my favorite nephew, Zac, who’s now 25. I share my story with him — that I’m deciding to face my fear, trust myself and not my audience, that I am pushing up against the ceiling of my personal prison. I’m excited because I know he has struggled with some of the same fears.
At dinner, the whole conversation erupts into an all out brawl. My brother-in-law and Zac are saying that only science has validity. If it’s not proven by science, it’s “fringe” and random. In contrast, I believe there a lot of things science can’t explain. And, yes, I have very strong beliefs.
But they gang up on me. In angry tones, they start yelling at me that people like me with strong beliefs are narrow minded and dangerous. “Hitler and the uni-bomber had strong beliefs — look what they did!”
It’s the biggest blow to my heart that I’ve received in a very, very long time.
One of my favorite people in the world, who has always loved and respected me and whom I have loved and advocated for his whole life, is telling me that I am narrow minded and a danger to society. It is truly crushing. Once again, I’m back in my personal prison, the walls closing in.
No one from my family has called me since. Not even my mother.
I’ve been so deeply sad.
So, the thought of coming here tonight, to share this story, means challenging my belief that I have to keep my head down and shut my mouth. I am deciding to stand up and share who I am. I am choosing to believe that personal freedom is earned by taking steps such as this.
And that trust is an inside job.