When I was in kindergarten, I went the entire school year without uttering a single word to my teacher. Mrs. O’Connor was both a seasoned educator and a veteran parent, and as such, she was surely mystified by my unwillingness to speak to her. Not only did it obstruct her ability to evaluate me as a student; I believe she took my stubborn reticence as a personal challenge, putting a career’s worth of teaching and a lifetime of mothering to the test. But the harder she tried, the quieter I became. The longer I went without speaking to her, the bigger the deal it became for me to open up. I could feel the pressure mounting, and each day became an anxiety-ridden struggle to resist her conversational advances. It wasn’t until my very last moments as her pupil that she finally got me to speak in her presence. It seems she had realized that when one is trying too hard to make something happen, sometimes it’s best to step back, turn down the pressure, and just let that something happen instead.
I had always been a shy child, notoriously tight-lipped around unfamiliar grownups and prone to zeroing in on any random peccadillo that might render one radioactive in my eyes. Mrs. O’Connor was what I now imagine to be very model of an early-childhood educator. She was a kind, cheerful lady whose expert blend of firmness and nurturing gently ushered us into the world of schoolhouse learning. But, while any fathomable reason to dislike her may have eluded most people, I was instantly able to fixate on one rattling quirk: her voice. She spoke with a distinctive, jarring falsetto that resembled a cross between Mickey Mouse and Julia Child, and honked out words with the dynamic range of an air horn. Some may have found it peculiar; I found it terrifying. My instinctive response in the face of this bellowing Irish banshee was to shut down entirely, refusing to let my voice fall on her ears while her shrill howls tormented mine. And so began the yearlong standoff between a teacher’s uncanny voice and a student’s unyielding silence.
Over the course of the year, Mrs. O’Connor’s attempts to coax a few words out of me came in various escalating forms. At first, when I wanted to play with an out-of-reach toy, she would tell me I had to ask for it before she would agree to retrieve it. I would simply huff and go without the toy. Later on, set off by my standard refusal to say “here” during the morning roll call, she ratcheted up her efforts by sending me home early two days in a row. She explained that if I wouldn’t state my presence in class, I wasn’t allowed to be present in class. But I was unbothered by the extra time away from Mrs. O’Connor, and the gravity of this two-day suspension never sunk in. A parent-teacher conference was eventually called, and to my horror, this involved Mrs. O’Connor (who also happened to be my neighbor) coming into my house and sitting in my living room. Perhaps she had hoped that the comfort of home and the reassurance of my parents might soften me up a bit. But, to everyone’s chagrin, I just laid low – hiding under my bed – until she was gone. Her more direct approaches weren’t working, and time in the school year was running out.
While my aversion to Mrs. O’Connor was at first rooted in the sound of her voice, I did eventually grow accustomed to it, and as the year wore on, my abhorrence of her very existence lessened somewhat. I became warily cooperative in the occasional one-on-one scenario, like the time she asked me to help her search for the escaped class hamster, and when she offered to take me home from school after my usual escort (my older brother) had fallen through. I even started participating in show-and-tell, proudly waving my favorite teddy bear in front of the class (though still leaving the whole “tell” portion out of it). But, by the latter half of the year, a slightly different reason for my silence had emerged. One day, I arrived at school wearing my very first pair of glasses. Unfortunately for me, five-year-olds in glasses are irresistibly cute, and Mrs. O’Connor couldn’t contain her effusion over how adorable I looked in my new specs. The overwrought, cheek-pinching attention from her left me absolutely petrified. If this was how she reacted to my glasses, what was she going to do when I finally spoke? Now, more than anything, I dreaded the ecstatic fireworks I was convinced my first words to her would ignite. The very prospect of such gushing elation only deepened my resolve to keep quiet.
As the school year came to a close, Mrs. O’Connor, no closer to getting me to speak in her presence, decided to make kindergarten graduation her last-ditch gambit. For the ceremony, she decided that I would be the one to recite the Pledge of Allegiance for all the parents, teachers, and students in attendance. This, of course, was a huge gamble on her part, as all indications were that I would just stand silently, as I had in rehearsal, until relieved by a more willing classmate. Mrs. O’Connor had never gotten a single word out of me; what made her think she could get thirty-one out of me in a single night? She must have had a plan.
The night of graduation, when the moment of truth arrived, I nervously approached the microphone. Unsure of what I would do next, I anxiously scanned the crowd to see if Mrs. O’Connor was watching. I soon noticed that she had moved to the rear of the auditorium, turned her back to the stage, and appeared to occupy herself with something other than my impending performance. This was my chance. She wasn’t paying any attention to me. I had to speak now, or stand before the crowd in awkward, humiliating silence. Seizing the moment, turned to the flag, took a deep breath, and spoke. I was done in mere seconds, my delivery as rapid-fire as my heartbeat. Mrs. O’Connor stared at the back wall the whole time, and though she must have been delighted by her successful ruse, she withheld any reaction when I finished. It was a hard-won breakthrough – the first time she’d ever heard the sound of my voice – but she played it totally cool. I let out a huge sigh of relief, and returned to my seat.
And just like that, kindergarten was over.