When I was 3 years old, I stopped talking. I was progressing normally until then and I progressed in every other way imaginable after, but when it came to speaking to people who were not my parents or siblings, I just couldn’t do it. My mom wasn’t even aware that I had stopped talking because I still spoke to her. It wasn’t until my family visited my grandparents in Florida that my grandma mentioned that I wasn’t speaking.
I was selectively mute. The diagnosis was previously called elective mutism, but it was changed to reflect that those with this disorder do not choose to not speak. They just can’t. I remember many times as a kid when I was pressured to speak and most of those times I desperately wanted to say something just to end the relentless interrogation, but it was like an invisible force was around my neck, preventing me from saying anything. I once described the feeling like a cartoon garden hose with a kink and the water pressure builds until the hose explodes; the words would clog my throat and I’d fight to simultaneously keep them down and hope that they break free. I wanted to speak but over the years my silence became comfortable and I couldn’t figure out a way to start talking without causing huge reactions from my peers, those of which asked me nearly every recess why I didn’t talk. How was I to go from being “The Girl Who Doesn’t Talk” to being a kid who does?
Following third grade the school district boundaries changed, so I, and many other students, was moved to a new school. This redistricting would end up changing my life. At my new school I had the chance to start over and be the kid who does talk and most of the students would have no idea that it was something I struggled with, but the fear of revealing my voice was still overpowering. My fourth grade teacher pulled me aside a few days into the new school year and requested that I start communicating with her but through a notebook. I was reluctant to start and fought it as much as I could. The idea of changing, even as little as using a notebook to communicate, seemed more daunting than speaking. Later on I was introduced to the school’s psychologist, Ms. Manning. She had a plan and was willing to do anything to get me to where I needed to be.
One of the projects the fourth graders were tasked to do was to create a children’s book that we would write and illustrate ourselves. Having been a budding writer from my experiences of writing stories in class at my last school, this project was something very special to me. Ms. Manning discussed making my big goal, to be accomplished at the end of the year, as reading my story to my sister’s second grade class. The reward for completing this feat was to be a pet bird, which my parents had agreed upon.
Throughout the year Ms. Manning gained my trust and I started speaking with her. Using the same methods she helped me feel comfortable around other people, like my teacher and a few classmates. By the end of the school year I had finally started speaking in class, but I still had to complete my final goal of reading my story.
The day came and all I remember is being up at the front of the class. I don’t remember the walk to the classroom or how I ended up in a chair with a bunch of seven year olds crowded around me, but I do remember the gut-wrenching fear. I was scared out of my mind, but I was also a courageous and ambitious little girl, so even though I did not want to read, I did it anyway. I spoke to those younger kids, telling them the story of a girl who befriended a talking carrot as they go off into the city and solve crimes. The story itself did not make much sense, but ideas from kids rarely ever do.
Closing the book to mark the end of my tale, I felt a huge wave of relief as the gurgling in my stomach settled. I smiled hesitantly, like I had just outrun a cheetah and the realization that I was still alive hadn’t sunk in yet. The second graders clapped for me, all but one unaware of how monumental this day was. I looked to my sister and then to my mom and Ms. Manning standing in the classroom doorway; if I could speak, I could do anything.