I felt my entire body tense up, my fingers curled around the poster board my teammates and I had worked so hard to decorate. I recall discovering the existence of an intriguing desert creature in our classroom research prior to this, cutting up printed pictures of said creature to paste on the presentation. I loved animals then—loved to discover fascinating facts about the various creatures in our ecosystem. It was fourth grade—my first year at a new school—and we’d all worked hard to piece together our group presentations. The research was the easiest part about the project, but I’m not sure all participants would agree. After all, at the end of the day, we simply had to recite what we learned to the entire fourth grade. How difficult could that be?
I don’t recall this happening often with me, but classroom presentations started to become a common occurrence at around this age. I was nervous, my eyes darting wearily around the room as if they were searching for the slightest hint of a threat. It was my turn in the presentation to speak, but all I remember is opening my mouth, words failing to escape. I might have been holding my breath, but the detail doesn’t come to me. There are no words left in my brain that have anything to do with the assignment, even with the facts glued to the back of the presentation board. My brain had begun to panic—more concerned with the twenty pairs of eyes on me and less with the poster board in my hand. Even now, I don’t remember the name of the desert creature I had learned so much about.
Elementary school teachers tend to be patient. It’s kind of a necessary trait to have when working with children. At nine years old, though—and even today—their patience tortures me. No amount of waiting was going to allow me the ability to finally speak. My brain had already decided it was done. So we all sat in silence for a painstakingly long time. I can wait, though. Growing up with my disorder, patience was everything.
Sometimes these moments felt like a war, both of us—the teacher and I—waiting for the other to give up. It may be why those with Selective Mutism are often pegged as stubborn beings. From the other angle—the teacher’s—they may feel the same, frustrated that we are not speaking. The difference is, they expect us to eventually form a coherent word as if we were giving up our determination to stay silent. However, this idea falsely suggests that Selective Mutism is a choice—that we are choosing not to speak. That’s not the case at all. This isn’t a war in those terms. We want us to speak too.
I’ve been told I am a patient person. I often think before I speak, choosing words and actions carefully. Unless I feel rushed, I often take my time completing tasks. I was usually one of the last students to complete an exam. I can sit and wait out a clock longer than most people I know. However, a lot of this is due to my racing and/or imaginative thoughts occupying my time so much that I often lose track of it. Once, when I was in the emergency room at age fifteen, I laid with an IV in my arm for four hours, not once complaining about the time. My parents, on the other hand, were impatient people, bored with the hours wait. This isn’t always the case though, and I have days where I am begging the clock to move faster.
In high school, if I were ever called on, the teacher’s excursion was often followed by a long awkward silence. I wouldn’t know the answer, but instead of admitting it, I’d wait for them to give up.
“Think about it for a moment and I’ll come back to you,” they’d often say, moving on to the next person. I’d pray they wouldn’t return to me in the end. My brain would be so distracted with the idea of having to speak that there was no way I’d be able to focus on my answer to the question.
“She looks like she’s paying attention, but I can’t always tell if she’s understanding the material,” I’m sure a few teachers told my parents at conferences. I’d mastered the art of looking like I knew what I was doing, mostly to avoid social interaction. I’d wanted desperately for someone to notice I was struggling, but couldn’t manage to look like that’s what I wanted. I often communicated with body language, specifically to ward others away. It was frustrating to me that my disorder controlled who I interacted with, wanting nothing more than to isolate me, when all I wanted was someone to pay attention.
“You’re gonna want to turn three more blocks ahead,” J instructed me in college as I was driving to my cousin’s house. I’d been to this house multiple times over the years, but always seemed to pick the wrong street to turn on when entering the neighborhood. “You looked lost,” he explained. His observation shocked me enough to remember the moment years later. J always managed to notice the subtle shifts in my body language—a rare gift no one in my life had ever displayed to me. I wished more people could have been like J while I was growing up.
When the subject arises, I often tell people that patience and observation are key traits I value in others. Without it, being friends with me has proven difficult in the past. Being quick to frustrate will only add to my own frustration with myself. It’s like adding fuel to an already existing fire. I think sometimes people forget that those with Selective Mutism are just as frustrated with themselves as other people are with them. We have a tendency to want to communicate, but aren’t always able to.