Can you speak louder?
Elizabeth Prater | Wednesday, February 16, 2022
Growing up, I was always the shy kid in the classroom. Even if I knew the answer or wanted to contribute an idea, my lack of confidence and spiraling thoughts would prevent me from communicating what I wanted to say. I suppose that’s why I turned to writing; documenting my ideas in a way that couldn’t be negated by someone else and wouldn’t be diminished by someone following up, asking me to “speak louder.”
However, while writing offered a temporary escape from this dilemma, I also didn’t want my teachers to think I was apathetic and that my lack of speaking was from general disinterest. My parents helped me to try to “come out of my shell” by encouraging me to play both piano and violin at recitals.
Playing piano recitals terrified me, and I recall forgetting where I was mid-Chopin’s “Mazurka,” sitting on the bench with a beet-red face and a heart thumping louder than the sustaining pedal ringing in the church.
One winter, I begged my mother to call my violin instructor to tell him that I couldn’t make the recital because of the inch of snow that had barely peppered the streets in the Pacific Northwest. I was worried that my sweaty palms would distort my Perlman vibrato (as my teacher called it) and that I would fall flat when shifting to eighth position during a difficult concerto.
While these experiences subtly helped me build better stage presence and comfortability with being in front of crowds, I started to develop new insecurities. It wasn’t merely about being afraid to be in front of others, but new thoughts started to consume me. Was my piece trite compared to those before me? Was my poor posture distracting and would my teacher reprimand me afterward? Would I stumble and forget to mention the opus of the piece I was performing?
While my time spent consumed by music was beneficial in some aspects, it wasn’t these experiences that had changed my outlook, but rather words themselves. I remember that in order to combat the nerves that I felt when reading aloud in class, I would check out books from the library and read them aloud to my dog who would patiently wait by my side — page by page, chapter by chapter. I soon replaced these books with writings of my own and began to share with the rest of my family the tales that I weaved with my active imagination and prose-like inclinations.
It wasn’t until my first year of high school that something clicked. After reading a book for class (“Samurai’s Garden” by Gail Tsukiyama), we were asked to create an artistic response and share it with our peers. For an introvert like me, the words “share with the class” were enough for me to lose sleep over.
I composed my poem that night and waited in trepidation in my seat the next day. Near the end of class, my teacher realized I had yet to share, so she invited me to stand in front of my peers’ watchful eyes and present.
I timidly walked up to the front of the room and a few of my friends gave me an encouraging thumbs-up. I smiled meekly and, after fumbling with my printed copy for a few seconds, began to share my verses. While I was reading, I didn’t pay much attention to the audience but rather to the words that were printed on the page. Each stanza I read felt like a small personal victory. I stuttered on my words significantly, and I had to catch my breath a few times. When I finished reading my piece, I took a huge breath of relief as I raced back to my seat without waiting to see my classmates’ reactions.
My friend nudged me to look over at someone on the opposite end of the classroom, proclaiming, “You made her cry.” Streams of tears were gliding down another student’s face and she quickly wiped them away in fear of embarrassment. It wasn’t my intention to induce any form of catharsis, as I was merely sharing my thoughts about the grief-filled themes that the novel portrayed. However, at that moment, I realized that my words had resonated with someone else — someone that I did not know. These were the same words that I tried so hard to conceal.
For once, it wasn’t about the volume of my voice or whether I was performing appropriate dynamics at a violin recital, but it was about pure emotion and thought. With that epiphany, I reached a state of tranquility, a sense of rest after being at war with my own skin, intellect and voice for so long.
While my attempt to cultivate confidence and speak aloud has been nonlinear, Notre Dame has helped tremendously, particularly through my seminars in the Program of Liberal Studies, where participation and discourse are the motor of the major. However, there are days I feel like that first-grader who is tongue-tied behind her desk, her pinky stained by the pages of stories that fill her notebook.
As I walk alongside St. Joseph’s Lake in the winter months, where the frozen water is still and the murmur of footsteps is hushed by the snow, I am reminded that there is true fortitude in quietness. The quality of one’s thoughts shouldn’t be limited by external perceptions or expectations, but rather should reveal one’s nature and inclination to know, learn and grow.
In a world where it seems like the loudest voices are the ones that get heard, I have come to realize that, sometimes, the quietest sounds can have the biggest impact. The sound of lead breaking, pages being softly turned in the corner… these are the voices of the future.
You can contact Elizabeth at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.