I was going to write a blog post about voice in writing, partly because of the novel I’m working on and partly because of an interesting question Karen asked me in an email I haven’t answered yet. But on the way to it (and I will still get there, in a future post) I got sidetracked by the question of “voice” in my everyday life, especially in my work.
One of my students is involved in a research project (not with me, but she has interviewed me for it) which centres a lot around the idea of “voice,” encouraging students to feel they have a voice in their own education and enabling them to use it. In her interview with me she asked if I feel I have a voice, as a staff member at the Murphy Centre.
I very quickly said that yes, I do. In fact I feel I have been able to use my voice more truly, more honestly, in my present place of work than I ever have in any other environment I have worked or studied in.
It’s a unique thing about the place I teach, and one of the things which makes it the perfect place for me. I can be honest about what I think and feel, and say it in the words that seem most appropriate at the time and for the person I’m speaking to. I haven’t experienced that before. I’ve been in a lot of places where I had to curtail my words, to choose them carefully, to make sure I sounded professional or acceptable. I’ve always been a person of strong voice and strong opinions, and one of the great joys of the last four years has been finding a place where I can speak with my own voice and not feel that it’s too loud or too anything. It’s OK. My voice and I, are acceptable here.
But that doesn’t mean that anything goes. Every day of the last four years has also been an education in how to use my voice to better serve the young people I teach, as well as to reflect honestly who I am and where I’m at. Sometimes that means finding the right words. Sometimes it means asking a direct question when at another time in my life I would have dodged the difficult topic, smoothed it over and avoided it. Sometimes it means being silent.
But using my voice also means I take the risk of misusing it. Which I think may have happened today.
I’ve blogged before about my lifelong sense of inferiority around quiet people, how they can seem so wise and serene by just saying nothing. I’ve accepted I’ll never be one of them. I love my voice and the power to use it. But quiet people run so much less risk of randomly hurting and insulting others. If you use your voice enough, sooner or later you’re bound to screw up.
I was in a situation with another student today where I felt I had to say something. We don’t have a lot of “discipline” issues per se at the Centre — the environment cancels out the need for most of what is politely called “classroom management.” But today where I had to ask a student to be quiet — to stop using his voice at that particular place and time, because I needed to teach. And I felt that because of this particular student’s situation, and my relationship with him, I could say something very direct and firm — not “Shut up!” of course, but slightly more polite words to that effect. In fact I looked him in the eye and said, “[Student’s name], you need to stop talking now.” And I thought for that person in that situation, those words would be appropriate and right.
Until I said them, and saw the look on the student’s face, and realized that the words I had carefully calculated and chosen had come out sounding exactly like “Shut up.” Which is something I never want to say. There’s a time to speak and a time to listen, but in this case I totally miscalculated how to send that message, and I think possibly hurt the feelings of someone whose feelings matter a lot to me.
Of course I apologized later, and tried to smooth the waters. More words on top of words. There’s so little words can do, and so much.
Much later in the afternoon I sat with another person who seemed literally unable to stop talking. In this case his words were fuelled by fear and anxiety, and I was not in a situation where I was supposed to teach — we were talking one on one, so I had time to listen. I kept trying to cut in, to tell him what I thought he needed to hear. And then the inner voice came through clearly through the clutter in my brain: Shut up. Let him talk. This is what he needs right now.
So I sat still and listened. We both sat so still that the motion-activated lights in the classroom shut off, which has happened only three times since we moved into that building. Each time I’ve felt shocked, of course, and then I’ve felt a little surge of joy, because I realize if I’m sitting that still with someone, I must be really listening.
The person who couldn’t stop talking wound down eventually, and I had a chance to say a few things, but I’m pretty sure the time I spent sitting silently listening to him spoke more loudly than any words I could have said. I love the power and freedom to use my voice, but I’m daily learning when and how to use it — and when not to.