Voice: My Struggle to Speak

by: Addison Bell

He was loud as a little boy.

In Kindergarten, he dressed up as the Pink Power Ranger for Halloween. It did not even notice that other boys chose to be Red or Green. He believed Pink was better, which is why it was his favorite color. He only drank cream soda, because of its light red color; his school supplies were pink; when he went putt-putt golfing, he chose the pink ball. After Halloween, he begged his mother to let him wear his costume to school. He would have done it if she had allowed him to.

He also wanted to be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Daphne from “Scooby Doo.” He wanted to be his mom. Sometimes he wished that Halloween could be everyday because then he could be who ever he wanted to be without getting into trouble.

Sometimes he would talk to his friends about this. They would tell him who they would be. Most of them said dinosaurs. He liked pterodactyls the most.

He also liked when everyone talked at the same time in class, which happened a lot. When everyone talked, he felt like it was okay to talk, too. Voices reminded him of songs and he liked music, especially cartoon theme songs and Garth Brooks. Sometimes, when he felt brave, he talked the loudest. He liked how everyone sounded different. Everyone’s voice was a different color. His was pink, naturally.

In the first grade, they pulled him out of class. He did not know why. In the hallway, a lady introduced herself. He did not feel like talking, because he was scared. His teacher told him it was okay. The lady took him to her office, which was as a small as a closet. It was cluttered with books and folders and files and board games. He liked games, especially Candy Land.

The lady was big, and she had long black hair and glasses. His older brother had glasses, too. He wanted glasses. Once, he lied to his mother and said that he couldn’t see anything. He pretended to run into walls and then would fall over. She took him to the eye doctor to get examined. When the doctor sat him in front of a large machine and told him to look through the eyepieces, he got scared and started crying. He told the doctor that he had been bad and lied, and that he could see just fine. His mother gave him the silent treatment. He did not get glasses.

There was a bowl of candy on the table. The lady offered him some. She had a wide smile, and she giggled a lot. He decided that he liked her. She told him that she was going to help him talk better. He got excited because he wanted to have the best voice in his class. He was going to win. He was going to be the best.

***

He saw speech pathologists for years, all the way up to the end of junior high.  A few days a week, he would go to his sessions. Whenever he said a word with the “s” sound — snake, school, stupid, scary — it came out fuzzy. The roof of his mouth vibrated and air refused to flow from his nose. His pathologist instructed him to say words slowly; she taught him how to lift his tongue, so that the sound would come out right. She smiled at him when he did it correctly.

But, even though it worked, he hated it. He only did it right when he was in sessions. One day, the pathologist asked him why he did not practice the method in his classes or at home.

“Because it makes me sound gay,” he said. They were in the library, so he whispered it with slight hesitation. He did not like saying that word because it hurt. The pathologist assured him that he did not sound “gay,” but he said everyone made fun of him and looked at him weird, like he was speaking in a different tongue. Her solution was to record his voice and to play it back to him, just show him that he did not sound strange. When he heard the recording, he felt sick. He wanted to throw up, to vomit out every sound in the alphabet.

When he heard his voice, he realized that he did sound like he was gay. It was not just the lisp. He had a girls’ voice, flowery and high-pitched. Everyone was right, and there was nothing he could do about it.

He asked if there was a surgery that could fix it. She said no. He asked her every time they met if there were doctors that could make it go away. She said no again. He cried.

He feared talking on the phone; speaking in front of his class; talking in general. When he talked to people for the first time, they would look down at their feet. Some would smirk at their friends, as if they were keeping a secret from him. But it really was not a secret because he knew whom they were laughing at.

At home, he would practice speaking in deeper tones. He would close his eyes and pretend to hear John Wayne’s voice. Or Tom Hanks. Morgan Freeman. Robert de Niro. The black guy from The Green Mile. He needed more confidence.

He stopped liking pink so much. People’s voices lost color, lost the lyrical quality that made him float. Everyone was better. He had lost. He realized that there never was a competition—no chance—to begin with.

***

He liked pretending so he did musicals in high school. The director never gave him speaking parts, and he could just dance and lip-synch in the background. But then the director turned evil and gave him lines. When he practiced them at rehearsal, he fell out of character, and said them quickly, mechanically. He felt like he was yelling out to them, “Look at me! I’m a homo!” He imagined saying it and then tap dancing across the stage with jazz fingers. Sometimes he would practice this in front of the mirror in his bedroom.

On the day of opening night, the cast performed their show to the junior high kids. He vomited before the show. He couldn’t stop stuttering. Every time he said his lines, he heard snickering in the audience. Put the tap shoes away, he would think to himself.

He stopped doing musicals. He quit choir. During his senior year, he had perfected the “s” sound, but he still hated how he sounded. That year he also quit playing tennis and a number of other extra-curricular activities. He read all of the time. Novels weren’t vocal. He wanted to be a book.

His art teacher praised his for his talents. Sometimes he skipped class and painted in the back of the art room. There was a concealed space behind the storage shelves where he would set up his easel. No one ever really knew he was back there, except his art teacher, but he did not bother him.

Sometimes, when he was painting, he imagined what it would be like to be mute. He thought of how difficult it would be to learn sign language. But the language was an art itself. His language was not. It was cruel and ugly. He wondered how long he could go without saying anything to anyone.

Painting became his voice, and he made it beautiful. His canvases were filled with reds and blues, purples and greens. Pinks. He saw himself in the colors, in the brush strokes, in the textures. The paintings said everything, so he did not have to say anything at all.

Occasionally, he messed up, but then he looked at other kids’ paintings or drawings and found faults in them too. He slowly began to realize that everything was flawed. Pieces of paper had smudges; colors did not blend in well; actors forgot lines; vocalists hit the wrong notes.

He had to give a speech at his graduation. It took him three days to write it. There were things he wanted to say, but he decided to be kind instead. When he thought about this, he realized that he did not owe kindness to anyone. People, in general, were certainly not kind. But he already knew he was different and he did not want to be “people.”

He wanted to kill them with kindness, smother them with it.

The graduation was held in the gym. It was late May and there was no air conditioning. The stands were filled with strangers.

A handful of people talked before him. He did not listen, because he was too nervous. He wanted to throw up, pass out, and then throw up again. The boy next to him asked if he was okay. He said, “I’m a-okay.” The boy looked away.

When he got up to the podium, he stared into the crowd of students. He wanted to see each of the faces of the ones who had bullied him. Maybe a few would see the pain and anger in his eyes, but most of them would just see the “gay” kid smiling. He praised them in his speech. He praised his school, his teachers. He said everything he was supposed to say, and he even recited song lyrics.

No one knew that he was smiling because of what he was thinking. He was thinking how good it felt to throw his voice into the faces of the kids that ridiculed it. He was thinking about how he never would have to see them again. He was thinking that at some point, they would feel small, too. At some point, they would hurt like he did.

And in his head he said, “I’m going to win. I’m going to be the best.” It was a line that he had forgotten he had memorized, one that he had carried with him all along.

Addison Bell is a senior at DePaul University where he is studying English Literature. He is the President of Oxfam DePaul and volunteers with Oxfam America, an organization dedicated to ending world hunger, poverty, and social injustice. Follow Jacob on Twitter @boy_1904 and on Tumblr: colourmegreenwich.tumblr.com.

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2 responses to “Voice: My Struggle to Speak

  1. I love your voice and find nothing wrong with it. I could listen to you all day long. You did a good job on this piece.

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