I was in the safe seat. Ah, yes. The safe seat. I’m unsure why they called it that. It was always a desk set apart from the rest of the class where kids who had caused trouble were temporarily exiled to. Of course, there was only room for one child at a time. If multiple kids started acting up, that was an entirely different issue altogether.
At the safe seat, a cubby was always full of slips of paper that asked about the student in question’s emotional state, why they screwed up, and how they planned to stop screwing up in the future. Those slips of paper also required a parent’s signature. How I managed to be banished to the safe seat during third grade recess was surprising, to say the least.
“Did you hear me?” Mrs. Hershey asked, fuming. The cafeteria went silent, my friends shooting nervous looks at me. They’d been giving me the same look for the last thirty seconds as I rushed to finish my story. “That was strike three. You’ll have to sit in the safe seat now.” My lower lip wobbled. Though I’d heard her give the first and second warning, I hadn’t finished sharing everything yet. I wanted to get the story out before I lost the opportunity and forgot about it. Now I’d lost the opportunity forever. Not only that, but I was actually in trouble. My parents would have to sign a piece of paper and everything. They’d know I’d screwed up.
Mrs. Hershey guided me to my empty third grade classroom and left me at the safe seat alone. I had the entire classroom to myself for a short while, so I lied my head on the desk and cried. I didn’t like Mrs. Hershey. She wasn’t my teacher, so she didn’t really know me. She wasn’t as nice as Mrs. W.
As mentioned in a previous post, Mrs. W, my third grade teacher, was pretty much the only teacher who recognized my social anxiety and tried to do something about it. She tried to be my champion, continuously working with me in the classroom in an attempt to harness my confidence in a way that positively impacted my speech. Mrs. W had loaned me a self-help book near the beginning of the year (one that I didn’t read) that was supposed to help me speak up in class. She was the first to ask if my voice sounded loud to me due to my quiet speech in class. She was patient and caring. I loved Mrs. W. I wish her efforts had helped in the long run.
When Mrs. W entered the classroom and saw me at the safe seat, she was confused. I rarely got into trouble. My anxiety didn’t usually allow it. I tended to follow the rules religiously, always worried about getting into trouble. After answering a few questions for Mrs. W as to why I was there, she promptly told me I wouldn’t need to get my parents’ signature on anything. It was wrong of Mrs. Hershey to punish me.
I didn’t quite understand this at the time, but now that I’m older, I look back on this memory with a new realization. Due to Mrs. W’s attempts at curbing my social anxiety and trying to get me to speak more, she had seen Mrs. Hershey’s punishment as something that undermined her efforts. I’d been punished for doing the exact thing my teacher had been trying to get me to do all year. While it was normal to punish students who spoke out of turn, it wasn’t necessarily an appropriate punishment for someone who had (what would later be figured as) selective mutism. All her punishment did was set me back in my progress—reinforce in me the idea that speaking would inevitably result in negative consequences.
I wish Mrs. W’s efforts had been adapted by the teachers of my later years. I wonder if the constant support (instead of the one school year of support) would have allowed me to grow out of my disorder at a much younger age. Alas, my family moved at the end of that school year, and while we stayed in the district, I was moved to another school with new teachers who were flabbergasted by the inconsistency of my verbal communication. Not a single one of them was trained to support a student like me, let alone recognize my disorder, and I inevitably fell through the cracks of the education system.
“You got in trouble for talking?” M asked four years later, incredulous. I shushed her, trying to convince her to keep her voice down. “I’m going to tell everyone you got in trouble for talking,” she said proudly. I might have threatened her with a stabbing per my plastic spork to no avail. M was enjoying this. Even though it was only my first year of junior high, I already had a reputation for being unusually silent. However, I’d been caught speaking to my friend R, in the middle of science class. Mrs. J had given me a stern look and a verbal warning, but I could see her eyes sparking with a small glimmer of pride as she’d done so. Still, I didn’t like that I’d been called out for it. I abhorred breaking the rules, especially if I was caught. Although my mute reputation wasn’t something I enjoyed keeping, I would have fought to keep the fact that I’d broken a rule a secret. Being known as rebellious or unruly in any way did not sit well with my thirteen year old self. I’m sure the news got out anyway though. M was far too excited.
I think it’s funny now that I’ve grown up and expelled a little bit of healthy rebellion. Seventh grade me overthought everything, worried that something as small as her speaking out of turn would completely degrade her reputation. How ridiculous. I’d somehow gotten it in my head that speaking out of turn had near-dire consequences, even when I wasn’t punished for it. Mrs. J hadn’t threatened me with detention or anything of the sort. I’d simply been called out for it. Yet, the fear that this news would somehow get out to the masses had me in a state of near-panic, resulting in a few ill-advised threats toward my best friend, who gladly took them as a joke. I didn’t want that kind of attention.
These are the only two times I specifically remember getting in trouble for speaking in school. It wasn’t a common experience for me. I rarely spoke out of turn, so it wasn’t typical for me to speak during class or announcements. The first time I’d been more afraid of forgetting my story than of being caught talking. The second time I’d been prompted into a discussion by one of my friends. I find it curious now that some of the only times I got in trouble for anything at school was when I spoke out of turn.