Writings from the HerStory Project: Learning to Speak (Again)
HerStory Writer-in-Residence Abena Beloved Green has been working with YWCA Halifax to mentor writers like Jill Clairo, helping them bring their stories to life for readers. We are privileged in our 30th-anniversary issue to present Clairo’s work here, a personal and profound reflection on her journey and growth as individuals.
Spend hours of your childhood with a bright pink and orange stopwatch, timing yourself saying things as fast as you can. Learn to recite the alphabet in under five seconds. Push yourself, make it under three seconds. Pretend to be an auctioneer. Get books from the library on tongue-twisters and practice them daily.
Develop a personality around being fast. Walk fast. Take snap photos and never pause to frame them correctly. Crop later. Always be the first one in class to hand in a test. Tell stories at a speed on the brink of incoherence. Roll your eyes when people can’t keep up.
Learn new languages. Learn French but refuse to speak because you can’t do it perfectly and French people are particularly cruel about that. Try German. Give up when you can’t make your throat pronounce things properly. Learn Spanish. Ah yes, learn Spanish like Cinderella sliding into the lost glass slipper. Find a home in the cadence, rolling r’s and most of all – speed. Discover that everyone speaks fast in Spanish; this is your language.
Move to a Spanish-speaking country, after years of entertaining the language as a hobby. Immediately realize your overconfidence. Drown in the inundation of words and expressions and rhythms of a language that feels increasingly like a pointed attack on your pride in speed. Develop an intimate knowledge of the feeling of your top and bottom lips pressed together by spending all day with your mouth shut, too lost to jump into the roaring conversations around you.
Be confused in meetings. Be confused when you try to buy groceries. Be confused when everyone is making what appear to be jokes and you only catch every fifth word. Laugh when others do, trying to not stick out more than you already do. Stay at home to avoid more confusion. Feel very, very alone.
Realize how much of who you are as a human is held in language and the ability to express yourself. Feel your personality erode, feel your confidence dissolve. Feel shame, feel embarrassed. Feel like other people think you are boring. Feel misunderstood.
Meet a new coworker. Find out he grew up in a Haitian community, speaking four languages before hitting puberty. Understand everything he says. Feel good about yourself until you realize it’s because he is purposely speaking to you as if to a child: slowly, with simple vocabulary. Answer, pushing pride away, grateful for the small kindness. Begin to look for him in any large social gathering. Cling to him like you held the ladder as a child in the deep end of the pool while your sister and her friends swam just out of reach.
Notice the difference between people who dominate conversation, ignoring you because you’re slow, and your new friend who gives you a chance to participate. Notice the gentle act of using language to create understanding, not just to hear your own voice. Notice the way it makes you feel to be accommodated. Rethink everything.
Think about every time you used language as a way to show off, as a way to trample over others. Think about every time you assumed those who were silent didn’t have anything to say, and all the times you didn’t pause to be proven wrong. Cringe. Stop cringing, decide to change.
Slow down. Look for the person who is cut off, who is silent, who is learning new vocabulary. Ask them a question. Take time. Discover how universal the pain of being left out is. Learn to listen. Ask another question.