The other day during an interview I was asked, “Why English?”.
I gave the standard “I love reading. I’m good at research. I’ve always been pretty drawn to writing.”
Not lies. Not the truth.
I had never really considered why I chose English before; it was just something I did, not a choice I made. But, after being asked in an interview I started to think. Why did I choose English?! I could have just as easily pursued a science. I absolutely loved Astronomy and Geology. The knowledge and concepts were easy. The things I learned in those classes just made sense even before they were thoroughly explained. I liked being able to *experience* the knowledge. Not to just read about it and know. To actually go outside and soak up the light of the stars and to understand their stories. To take a hike and know what kind of rocks provided the security that allowed me to ascend, to move closer to that beautiful sky. It gave me comfort to know what processes brought what materials together during a certain Era to create this unique surface upon which we walk. I was drawn to the stories of the world that gave us all life. Science gave me those stories. But I still needed something more, or something different.
I thought maybe it was the human aspect that lured me into the English department. The ability to know people through characters. Learning about humanity through the safety of words on a page or screen. The non-threatening kind of acquaintance. Learning with the option to shut the book or turn off the screen at any moment and just walk away. Knowing that characters on a page couldn’t hurt me had a certain allure. But that wasn’t it either. If it was just knowing people I could have majored in sociology or anthropology. Aside from the strange professor with the perpetual erection…I thoroughly enjoyed those classes as well.
I guess at some point I realized I just enjoyed learning. Seeking all knowledge with no regard for labels or boundaries. I wanted to immerse myself in a field that allowed for intersection. I wanted to stand in the middle of some imagined highway, where different types of knowledge would speed at me and become a part of me. More than this, though, I wanted to have a voice.
No matter where or what I studied I was always the quiet girl, the girl with no voice. I learned a long time ago to just sit quietly and let others speak for me…even if most of the time what they said didn’t align with how I actually felt or what I actually thought. It didn’t matter. *They* were the speakers that spread my message, no matter how distorted that message became in the process of delivery. Somehow, I learned that it wasn’t okay to correct someone that misspoke on my behalf. What an absurd lesson. But, however and whenever I learned these lessons they became permanent. I couldn’t unlearn them…or I haven’t been able to unlearn them yet. Too many years of being the only quiet person in a loud household maybe. Or, being the person that sees and hears things that would make the world a messier place. I always chose the illusion of order over the chance to inform (to have a voice). It could have been growing up in a home where my opinion and voice weren’t respected. Likely not even heard. After so many times of being ignored a person will eventually just stop talking (this is why I never react properly to feeling ignored even now). I stopped wanting to try. I stopped wanting people to hear *my* thoughts and *my* feelings. Why bother? It didn’t seem to matter. People already had their own opinions. Nothing I said could change the person other’s words crafted me to be. Anyway, the why doesn’t really matter, I suppose. There are a ton of possible reasons and none of them change the outcome. I felt voiceless, unheard, insignificant.
I chose English because writing was the only way I ever felt heard. Writing has been my voice in this place where I’ve felt voiceless. I was never able to tear down those walls I built so long ago and actually speak in class. (Geez! I can’t believe I remained so insecure about being heard). But, really, it didn’t matter. I was taught how to have a voice through words not audibly expressed. The pen became my voicebox. The letters on the keyboard were my soundwaves. The words on the screen or on the paper were actually mine. They belonged to me and no one else. That was usually good enough. I loved the chance to express my ideas in papers, to be acknowledged for once. Even if it was only by whatever professor happened to be teaching that class. Majoring in English made me feel like I had ideas worth being expressed. My professors helped me feel like someone was listening. I may not have always liked what was said about my ideas or how I expressed them, but I loved that I had the chance to say something. At last!
I don’t think majoring in English was ever a choice (not for me). I needed writing like I discovered I needed art. These things have become my lifeline. The parachute that keeps me from crashing full-speed into the solid ground below.
Writing probably saved my life. There is no way I could have survived some of my experiences if I was left to feel unheard, feeble, and insignificant. I would have withered away. I still sometimes feel like shrinking into nothingness, but now I have outlets to bring me back. I know what it’s like to express something and someone actually pay attention to that expression. I know how important it is to be heard and to listen. To listen, because I know it wasn’t always about me…isn’t all about me. I’ve learned that there are other people that feel voiceless. That maybe some people live their entire lives struggling to have someone pay attention to them just once. Or, perhaps it is a one time thing. No matter what the circumstance I have learned that one of the greatest gifts we can give one another is the time, patience, and attention to actively listen. Not to make someone feel like their voice doesn’t matter…because not everyone will have the chance to find that place where their voice resides.
Note: I originally wrote the above post 3 years ago on this day and it definitely means something new to me now. Being a high school teacher has absolutely given me new eyes with which to see the world. I hope I am helping someone find his/her voice the way my amazing professors did for me.
And, ironically, this is the very thing I’m working on in therapy right now. I’ve got a clear voice via writing but my therapist wants to help that unheard little girl find a voice that’s audible, that’s respected, and heard. We are working on actually verbalizing, speaking my needs and boundaries and thoughts and feelings. Maybe that piece will finally fall into place. But, for now, I am grateful for having found a form of expression which has allowed me to stay alive. Because with no means of voicing my feelings and experiences, I surely would have perished.