“I’m not yelling at you. This isn’t me yelling,” Mrs. H says after she’s dragged me into the hallway. I don’t believe her. Not really. Tears are streaming down my face, my nose stuffed up from the sudden onslaught. It isn’t hard to make me cry. I get teary so easily. Especially at this age.

I’m twelve in this memory, sixth grade winding down for the school year. I was stuck at a “tough age,” my mood swings flying into full gear. In fact, I laugh at myself in other memories from this year—ones in which I’ve suddenly blown up at boys. Hormones were such a power trip sometimes. I’d scare people with my quick and sudden outbursts—people who were used to me being the quiet, reserved girl. But enough about those moments. They aren’t important to this story.

Mrs. H continues her irritable explanation, trying to make me look her in the eyes in the process. Eye contact was hard for me at that age. I had developed a habit of looking to the right or left of a person when I spoke to them. I’m sure it probably threw a lot of people off. It takes a moment for me to obey her demand. The task proves especially difficult while my eyes are swimming with tears. “Has a teacher ever yelled at you before?”

I gotta hand it to Mrs. H. She wasn’t one of my favorite teachers. But she was at least TRYING to understand my reaction to her chastises. Had a teacher ever yelled at me? I furrow my brows, mulling over the question, trying to come up with a quick example. I equate a lot of vocal tones to “yelling,” but there was one instance that stood out to me…

“In preschool,” I answer, my voice quiet and shaky. I continue on with the story of the mean substitute we always got when Mrs. P was out. We’d get in trouble for little human things like stretching our legs while we sat in our circle. Apparently some adults think children are immune to numbness in their lower extremities, but when we sat on a hard, carpeted floor for awhile, the feeling was inevitable. I had tried to distract the sub one time as she was growing irritated with another student who refused to cross her legs. I’d quickly kicked my legs out from their criss-cross position before scissoring them back. She’d turned on me quickly.

I doubt that’s why I’m extra sensitive to negative tones, but the story seemed to appease Mrs. H.

I’m sure this sensitivity is related to my Selective Mutism. It surely stems from social anxiety as it pertains to a common fear of being disliked. I didn’t like to be wrong or do wrong—a desire that still holds true to this day. So whenever I was chided or corrected, it always struck a nerve.

Mrs. T is trying to show me the proper way to hold an archer’s bow a year later. Physical education was an easy trigger for my anxiety. There were lots of ways I could screw up when it came to games or sports, and unfortunately, any failure would be in front of a crowd. It was way too easy to set me off. I must be doing something wrong with the bow, because Mrs. T singles me out, trying to correct whatever error I’m making. I can’t help but burst into tears. “I’m doing it wrong!” My brain panics. “I’m always doing it wrong!”

Mrs. T quickly reassesses the situation, stepping back for a second. “Oh, you’re one of those kids…” She doesn’t say it in a mean way, but softly, understanding flashing across her expression. “Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re not doing anything wrong, I just think you’d have more success if…” she leads right back into her lesson, letting me sniffle my way out of my panic. In that small moment, I appreciate her.

“This is not the way we do things!” B raises his voice eight years later. I try to ignore him, try not to tear up as he ladles a few spoonfuls of soup in a customer’s cup. He would soon quit rather suddenly, leaving our district manager in a panic while our general manager (GM) is out of town. A week or so later, my coworkers and I tell some minor horror stories about him to our GM and I ended up saying, “He yelled at me.”

“He yelled at you?” My GM asks. I pause for a second. Dang. I forget other people’s definition of “yell” is different from my own. “Well, now I’m extra mad at him. Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” We all laugh at the reference. I think because of my sensitivity, people often felt protective of me. It was incredibly endearing when others would grow angry on my behalf.

I ran into this issue again a few months back. I was on a date, telling a story about a customer or two, when I ended up throwing the word “yell” around.

“They yelled at you?” M asked, incredulous. Oh geez. I’d done it again. I’d forgotten that the word “yell” isn’t interchangeable to everyone. When others hear “yell,” they expect it to be literal. Whoopsie-daisy. Oh well. To me, “yelling” could mean any negative tone including chastising, irritated annoyance, and actual shouting, because no matter what, they all illicit the same automatic response from me. I either cry or shut down. Yelling isn’t always yelling to me.

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