Stand Up and Speak (part one)

“Wait, so like, this can be really personal?”

“That’s kind of the whole point,” I replied.

“Then I’m changing my topic,” Minnie declared.

“Do it.”  She bent toward her paper, and the page became a tangle of her loopy, wild cursive.

It was the end of the semester, and in Oratory, my public speaking class, I was having students write short speeches to submit to This I Believe, a series on NPR.  I told them to write a speech explaining a belief they hold dear, something they’re convicted about.  I had just finished helping Alexandra distill her vague topic, “Relationships Are a Two-Way Street,” into what she really seemed to be saying, which was that she believes she has a right to abandon her relationship with her father because it’s entirely one-sided.

The wintry late-afternoon sunlight streamed in, painting slanted strokes on the chalk board, illuminating the desk graffiti beneath my hands.  Each student in this tiny class had finally settled into their work, and the only sounds you could hear were the faint strains of Usher from someone’s iPod.  Minnie filled the top half of her page.

“What’s your new topic?” I asked her.  She wrote it across the top and solemnly handed me her notebook.

On Minnie’s first day of school, before class, she marched into the classroom I was setting up.  She reminded me of one of my best friends in high school, a brainy, thoughtful boy who ambled from side to side as he walked, like a cheery farmer.

“Hi,” she announced.  “I’m Minnie.”  Her voice was husky and phlegmatic.  She was different: not shy, not wavering, not wanting to disappear.  Neither was she starved for attention, hollering for everyone within a two-block radius to listen.  She wasn’t coy; she was intent.  I could relate.

In Oratory, aside from not doing her homework, she’s been a joy to teach.  The class only had eight students (a scheduling aberration), and we spent a lot of time sitting around a big table, drinking tea and analyzing poems to recite.  Minnie always jumped in with an interpretation, lending gravitas to the discussion in her typically blunt way.  She seemed to have two speeds: dead serious and wisecracking.  How can you not love that?

I took the notebook and began reading.  I believe that I am not beautiful, she wrote.

My heart sank to my knees.  “Aw, fuck no,” I thought to myself.  I read on.

I believe I am smart, witty, and sarcastic.  I believe that my sisters are beautiful.  They look like goddesses, and I look like their servant.  I believe my mother is beautiful.  But I look at this grossly dark skin, these slanted eyes, this wide nose and hunch back, and it makes me sick.  Everyone always compliments my sisters on their looks, and all I get is, “Wow, you’re so dark.”

I wanted to cry.  I wanted to comfort her, and I knew I couldn’t.  I was stunned by her willingness to go to this fearsome place in herself – was it brave, or masochistic?  Maybe both.  I wanted to tell her how familiar the feeling of self-loathing was, how common to women and girls.   I also realized that just because I hated my looks in high school didn’t mean I knew what this felt like.  I was flattened.  My response was also flat; I couldn’t put any of these roiling feelings into words, and none of them felt right or appropriate.

“Wow,” I said gravely.  “That’s intense.”  It was all I could manage.  I could see her disappointment, her suspicion confirmed.  She was alone.  She stuffed the notebook into her bag and waited for the class to be over, agitated.  When she opened the door and headed down the hall, I called after her, but she kept going.

That night, I sent her an email.

Hey, lady. How’s it going?

Just wanted to say a couple things. One: what you wrote at the top of your page today hit me in the gut so hard that there was nothing I could do or say that felt right. My reaction didn’t convey anything I was feeling. I recognize that sentence more than you could know. Lord, the time we women spend thinking we are anything less than beautiful…but we live in a nasty world, and the insanity creeps in despite our best efforts. What you’re writing about is hard and brave, and the part of yourself that sings this song might be a part you’re afraid of. Be tender with this voice. Forgive yourself for speaking from the heart. Your words have immense, immense power.
Two: We often don’t believe it when we hear it, but I’mma say it anyway: GIRL, YOU ARE GORGEOUS. You are smart as hell, fierce, bright-eyed, and beautiful. You make people want to look you in the eye. Your face is gorgeous, and so are your curves. You have a great voice. You’re totally funny and dead serious. You’re talented and rare, and you light up the damn room. You won’t realize this until you’re old like me (ha), but the biggest part of your beauty comes from inside, from being willing to let your glory out, from letting your light shine without fear. It does not come from a flat stomach or white teeth, even if those dumb-ass ads for flatter stomachs and whiter teeth don’t go away at the edge of your computer screen.

Adolescence is treacherous. Don’t let the devilish voice of self-doubt get the best of you – breathe deep and drown him out!

I didn’t know how she’d respond; I didn’t think my email would make it better.  I wondered how much I sent it for myself, to assuage my own guilt at not being able to comfort her, my anxiety that an assignment I designed had led her to leave the room practically in tears.

Her reply was terse; she wasn’t interested in processing it with me.  Fair enough.  A few days later, students did a “practice run” of their speeches in front of the class.  By “class,” I mean seven kids (a few were absent).  Still, this group had proved a formidable audience for nearly every student who had to present themselves to it over the course of the semester; some, like quiet Denique, simply refused.  Others pretended they’d left their speech or poem at home, “in my other backpack.”  But it was a public speaking class, and my expectations remained: Stand up and speak.  I should have known what would happen.

Next installment to follow shortly…

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