Wordless Gatekeepers

“Why are you crying?” Mrs. Peach asked me as I sat on the sidelines of the carpeted gymnasium. I shrugged. I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure how to put it into words. I wasn’t hurt. Nobody was mean to me. However, I was plagued by the recurrent tears of my childhood—tears many teachers urged me to grow out of. This was my last year of elementary school (6th grade; 2007-2008). I was almost a teenager. Random bursts of emotions weren’t “cute” anymore.

I hated this school. Most of the teachers were crabby and impatient. We’d moved to the neighborhood at the end of my third grade year and I was excited for the newness that would come from my changed daily life. I’d been thoroughly disappointed. This school, like my last, was a Title I school, which meant it offered extra help in math and reading to struggling students in lower income neighborhoods. This also meant that any teachers who held Perkins loans from their college years would have those loans forgiven if they taught there for a certain amount of time. My teachers were all new to their jobs, the turnover rate seeming high in comparison. The students weren’t as friendly either. I was glad to be rid of it come graduation.

I communicated a lot by crying—something that was more common in a toddler than a child. I recall one instance in the fourth grade in which we had spent a good portion of the day on a field trip to a ballet. I squirmed in my seat the entire time, nauseous and ill, trying my best not to barf in the middle of the theatre. Communicating that I was sick was something I struggled with because 1) it required me to speak, drawing attention to myself and 2) the feeling that I could be missing out on something only grew my anxiety. I managed to make it through the entire show, but when we returned to school, I could no longer hold it in. Bursting into tears in the middle of the hallway, my behavior inevitably caused concerned heads to turn.

“What’s wrong?” Mrs. N asked. It took me a minute to respond, but I was finding that the tears were curbing my nausea. “My tummy hurts,” I said, knowing this time why I was crying. I was brought to the nurse, who pulled my asymptomatic brother from his kindergarten classroom and sent us both home. Apparently, my sister, who was in the third grade, hadn’t made it through the ballet. My tenth birthday party was supposed to be that night, but it ended up being cancelled due to whatever illness my siblings and I had come down with.

In the sixth grade, however, I sat in my gym class unsure of myself and my tears. I was threatened with a trip to the principal’s office for being unable to use my words. I’d successfully avoided the principal’s office in my seven years of elementary schooling, with the exception of a few standard check-ins that held no punishing tone. This, though, was a threat. I was misbehaving. I was defiant. This misconstrued behavior somehow deserved the trip. This threat reinforced the idea that anxious behaviors were bad. That’s what it was—an anxious reaction or “attack.” I wouldn’t be able to label that feeling as anxiety for several more years.

“I don’t know what to do,” I responded in a mumbling, squeaky voice. I must have come into the class late for one reason or another—the game we were playing was already in motion. I hadn’t had time to prepare myself for the activity. My friend, T, ended up guiding me through the motions of the game, freeing me from a possible trip to the principal’s office.

There was another instance in the fourth grade when we were playing some version of tag. I had randomly burst into tears in the middle of the game, again, not knowing why I was crying. “What’s wrong?” Mrs. Peach asked. I struggled to come up with an answer. Catching sight of my friend J, I found an excuse for the tears. “J pushed me,” I lied. Mrs. Peach had warned us that if anyone used excessive force, they would be disqualified. J raised his hands, a look of betrayal clouding his face. “No, I didn’t,” he defended. I had no other excuse for my confusing emotions. I watched as he was punished for something he didn’t do and am still racked with guilt about it fifteen years later. J was always picked on.

I was often told to “use my words” when it came to moments like these. After a while, the request always seemed redundant and unnecessary—condescending even. Using my words was the problem, not the solution. I was always searching for words to describe how I felt, but when I found them, I wasn’t always able to use them. Selective mutism has rules. Sometimes verbally sharing my feelings didn’t get SM’s stamp of approval. This led to a myriad of misunderstandings. It wasn’t the words I necessarily struggled with. It was the gatekeeper of my voice. Like the Roman god Janus, who presides over the opening and closing of doorways, my SM controls what I do or do not say. I knew using my words would help my teachers understand, I just didn’t know how to get those words through the gate. For me, the solution wasn’t “using my words,” the solution was something else entirely. I didn’t have anyone who worked with me specifically to find a solution. So at that age, crying or staring or pointing was often how I worked around my gatekeeper problem.

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