On Being Unheard

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I come from a very loud family. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. Going to my maternal grandmother’s home was quite a trip. We often gathered there on Friday evenings and it was not unusual at all for my mom and her seven siblings to all be there vying for center stage in the conversations. I am rather certain that people heard the chaotic discussions for miles around. It was impossible to get a word in edgewise, especially for someone with a voice as quiet as mine. I learned to just sit quietly and take in the show. 

I often dreamed of being taken seriously in one of those wild debates and thought that my turn might come when my generation became adults. Sadly my brothers and cousins were as loud as our parents had been and I still found myself struggling to get anyone to hear anything I had to say unless they were sitting right next to me. No matter how hard I tried to break into the conversation I was generally ignored, even when I probably knew more about the topic than anyone who was speaking. 

One thing I’ve learned is that people will ask for professional advice from lawyers, bankers, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and all sorts of experts but nobody wants to listen to the musings of a teacher. Even when the lively discussion is about education a teacher’s viewpoint generally gamers little respect. Teachers are mostly ignored, at least I always have been. I suppose that because everyone has once been a student in a school they tend to believe that they probably know about as much about what goes in classrooms as a teacher does. Anyway, when I announce that that I am a teacher I find that most people smile politely and walk away as quickly as possible. Among many circles there is a somewhat general belief that those who can’t do anything else decide to teach.

My former students and teaching colleagues still come to me for advice or to hear my thoughts but so many of the other people I know appear to think that I have nothing to offer. It can be rather frustrating and so I have turned to writing as a way to use my voice. I’ll never be able to muster enough volume to break into a group conversation but I am able to articulate who I am and what I am thinking with my written words. Having a web page has given me the pulpit that I never before had. 

For all I know I am writing for an audience of nobody but that is okay. I find it interesting that J.D. Salinger initially fought to get his work published but eventually wrote only for the joy of doing so. He lost interest in impressing others with what he had to say. In some ways that is how I now feel. Writing and expressing myself makes me happy and that is all that matters. If somebody happens to pay attention to what I have to say it is simply like a cherry on top of a bowl of ice cream. I don’t have to have their attention to survive but it sure feels nice when I know that somebody cares about my thoughts. 

Some people are really good listeners. I have a friend who is a counselor who has developed the art of active listening down to perfection. Whenever I talk with her either in person or via text I am certain that she has considered my words, my ideas. It is a joy to communicate with her.  

Others give me the impression that they are trying to think of ways to politely excuse themselves from me. Maybe the problem is that I talk too much when I do finally get an audience. What people do not realize is how exciting it is to finally have someone listen. I’ve been waiting for my whole life to be able to interject a comment without having to yell from the top of my lungs or raise my hand in the hopes of garnering attention.

I enjoyed the art of debate in high school when I was able to demonstrate that I do indeed know how to present logical, rationale arguments regarding the pros and cons of a particular question. Even then, however, I recall one of my judges being astounded that someone as “tiny and soft spoken” as I was had the ability to present and refute propositions so stunningly. I mean, really, what does a person’s appearance and voice have to do with knowledge and the ability to reason?

I would default to the idea that being a woman is my main barrier for being taken seriously but for the fact that my mother and her sisters always held their own in those raucous family discussions. Admittedly they were obnoxiously loud but people actually listened to them and considered what they had to say. Even my quite refined and elegant mother-in-law mostly managed to get her words into the fray, often with amazing success. I just failed and continue to fail in the conversation olympics with my extended family even when I have tried new tactics. 

It’s a frustrating situation for someone who was able to command the attention of known gang members during my teaching years. I’ve calmed parents threatening to kill other educators. I have supposedly inspired people with my wisdom. Not so with my brothers and cousins and the wild crew I call my extended family. I just sit back as I always have and smile at their antics knowing that often I do indeed have something worthy of saying that none of them will ever hear. 

I love my family. I suppose that my mom and her seven siblings grew up vying for attention. It was the survival of the loudest in their tiny house and they all perfected their skills save for one of the uncles who seemed to voluntarily surrender much as I have done. My brother and cousins were observant enough as children to learn how to enter the fray but somehow I never perfected that ability. I have to be content with quiet conversations in the corner or letting my hair down with my writing. I suppose that in fact my reality is not really so bad. At least nobody has ever accused me of being obnoxiously loud and the years of watching the show of the contenders has admittedly been great fun. Whether they listen to me or not, I love my crazy family and the verbal battles they fight. You really haven’t lived until you witness it. For now I am actually content knowing that I have mostly been unheard. They just don’t know what they are missing from me.