I always loved words. To look at them was to see a page with lovely little specks; a blank canvas peppered with distinct shapes. They played with my eyes. I can remember the first time I recognized my fondness of them. I was three years old and watching a TV show. Colorful words appeared upon the screen and at that moment I had deemed them the most attractive things I had ever seen. I wanted them. I just didn’t know what they were.
“Mommy, I want those blue things,” I said, pointing to the screen. A confused look grew upon her face.
“What blue things?”
I did my best to describe them, but the only thing I could decode was their color.
“Those blue things right there,” I insisted.
She stared hard at the TV for a few moments, then said, “Oh! Arielle, those ‘blue things’ are called words.”
They looked so incredible to me. Never before had I been intrigued by something so much and little did I know it, but this would be the start of my long relationship with words.
On the first day of Kindergarten, I packed my notebook, my pencils, my favorite eighteen-pack of crayons, and of course, my words. They were all tucked away inside
my head and ready to be said. I arranged them to greet people and to introduce my name, and I had also prepared them for my favorite books. Over the summer I read so many; some small some big, some which didn’t make sense, but still, all my favorites. I couldn’t wait to share my words with my new teachers. From the first day to the one-hundredth and so on, I made it a point to unravel all the words I knew. Then came first grade. At first my words would bring front-toothless laughs upon my classmates’ faces and make my teachers proud. Sometimes my words would take me to wonderful places, they opened me up to a new world that only I had the key to. Other times, they would take me to desolate and vacant places...like detention. My favorite things in the whole wide world began to fill my folders and flood my mind but this time they weren’t so sweet. Tiny scraps of neat paper would be crumbled like rubble in the bottom of my backpack. These weren’t the words I wanted; these were bitter ones that made my tongue curl and my eyebrows touch the bridge of my nose. Words like “self-control” and “distracting” covered the pages. I read each one. They didn’t think I could read them. They were the types of notes that were meant for ‘adults only’. My parents saw three of those papers. After that, I began to throw them away.
“Don’t be so talkative in class, Arielle.” I still couldn’t understand these words. I knew they made me feel bad and I knew I was in trouble because every time an adult used these words, they had their serious faces on. They sat me down in quiet rooms with dull, tan lights and humming air conditioning units. They were so loud, they were almost deafening amidst the silence. Then came “those words.” The words from every one of those ‘home notes’ were floating right out of my teacher’s mouth. I tried to drown them out, to keep them away. Her words felt like poison, choking me. They all clogged my throat. They shut off my windpipe and I couldn’t breathe. I gasped. I cried. The kind of cry that makes you breathe all weird and shake, you know? I did my best to cover it up by not speaking, I just shook my head. “Yes.” “No.” I remember how hard I worked that summer to write the word yes. My ‘y’ was always backwards and I could never seem to get the ‘s’ right. I wrote on every scrap of paper I could find to show my mom if I had done it right. “No,” she said. I tried again.
I couldn’t even say the glorious yellow word “yes” because it had left me. All my words had left me. The ones I had packed up so tightly and used each and everyday were gone. From then on I left words alone. For the next few days I looked at books and imagined their pages. I read street signs silently and didn’t raise my hand in class. My teachers knew I knew the answer. They didn’t realise they took my words. I still laughed with my friends; not too much though. I still sang to myself: not too loudly. I still read: not aloud though. Only at home when my homework was finished did I open my favorite book The Big Box by Toni Morrison. It was about three kids who when they didn’t follow the rules would be subject to a big “box.” I had read this book at least fifty times but I didn’t know what it was trying to say. Similarly to mine, Sherman Alexie recalls his childhood experience with reading in Superman & Me: “I read with equal parts joy and desperation.” This perfectly captures what reading meant to me at the time. It was an escape for me. At home I wasn’t in detention. At home I didn’t have to miss recess. At home I didn’t have to read tiny scraps of paper and act like I wasn’t suffering under their weight on my back. At home, I could read my favorite book ever.
“Mommy,” I asked one day. “What does this book mean?” I asked. It was obviously about a cool box but I didn’t get why the kids had to live away from their families.
“Well, it’s about how the kids aren’t able to express themselves. The adults around them are trying to just make them follow the rules and not be who they really are.”
For the first time, words made me anxious. I sat in my room and looked at the pretty pictures for awhile. Then I began to read: “Now Patty used to live with a two-way door, in a little white house quite near us. But she had too much fun in school all day and made the grown-ups nervous.” That line made me think. As I read, ‘Patty’ kept getting in trouble with adults because of the things she did. Why doesn’t she just stop talking in class or singing in school? I would think. What a bad girl.
It wasn’t until I was in third grade that a new idea popped into my head. Maybe it wasn’t about a cool, big box? Maybe it was the type of big box that I was always being kept in: one with windows and bright lights, and loud humming air conditioning units that were deafening in the silence. In Pablo Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ he says: “The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the student's creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed.” That was exactly what was happening to me. I would sit with my hands folded in that box all throughout lunch and the only thing that broke the screams of my silence were the screams of my friends having fun outside. I tried not to laugh at my friends’ jokes and not sing or talk or write...but there was always a laugh in me. There was always a song that needed to be sung and above all, there were always words. It was at that moment that I finally realized what the book meant. I was ‘Patty’. I was the splash of paint in a gray school. I wasn’t bad, I just couldn’t hide what made me different. I couldn’t ignore the words that I had always kept with me, and people just couldn’t understand it.
Ray Gwyn Smith once said: “Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?”. I was constantly at war. My language was always threatened to be taken away, and the attempts made to silence me were like a thousand tiny spears penetrating my brain. I spoke to express the world around me. I used my words to breathe life into my imagination. Despite the constant attacks that faced me and my words, I never stopped using my voice. I will never stay silent.
Morrison, Toni, Slade Morrison, and Giselle Potter. The Big Box. New York: Hyperion for Children/Jump at the Sun, 1999. Print.
Anzaldua, Gloria. How to Tame a Wild Tongue. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000. Print.
19, April. "Superman and Me." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 19 Apr. 1998. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.