And that’s the day my life changed: Learning to speak up

The Prequel:

I was trailing along behind my mother at the Hi-Low food store at 110th and Western, as usual. I was 8 years old, probably gazing at the red wagons lining the walls on shelves up by the ceiling, as usual. The cheery checkout lady finished up, handed the receipt to my mother and handed the bag to me – me, the little kid!

“I think you are old enough to help your mother out, aren’t you?” she said. She still smiled but there was something vaguely accusatory underneath.

Me? Well, I’d never thought about it. Was I? I experienced a wave of shame on my way out the door, bag in hand. Was I supposed to have noticed this on my own? When did it happen? Should I have automatically reached for the bag on my own? Apparently. After that, I did.

The Main Event:

It was early high school for me when the Beverly YMCA changed direction. In addition to dodge ball and awkward Friday night Canteen dances and such, the new leadership emphasized group activities where ten or twelve of us would sit in a circle of chairs and talk and listen and empathize with other people. It was the heyday of encounter groups and this was the young teen version.

I loved it, being more fascinated by people and what they might say next than gym activities. It also fed my hunger to find out what other people were actually thinking. Plus, there was a rule that you didn’t have to talk if you didn’t want to, perfect for a quiet girl like me. But I was a very good listener.

Apparently not everyone felt the same way. I remember a special meeting with a giant circle of chairs to include everybody. I was shocked to hear complaints and criticism from other kids – all boys now that I think of it. They objected to human interaction crowding out the sports they’d become accustomed to.

Impossibly shy and inexperienced with conflict, I shrank into my seat waiting for it to end. In fact, none of the many kids who were happy to be involved in the groups made a peep in defense of the new staff or the group experiences.

Finally, it was over. One of the staff, the youngest and most relatable, and cutest to us girls, passed by several of us, looking a little shell-shocked. He said, “None of you spoke up. Why?” And then he walked on.

Good question, and one that stayed with me for a long time. Here’s what I figured out that day:

First, sometimes you have to overcome your unfortunate personality traits in order to be who you want to be.

Second, the universe can toss you a chance to be your best self at any moment. Be ready.

Third, it’s better to be uncomfortable in the moment than to deal with guilt and regret afterwards.

Do I step up 100% of the time now to say what I think? No, I pick my battles like everyone else. And I’ll never be the loudest voice in the room (possibly a positive personality trait). But I won’t sit silent out of fear any more, thanks to my clarifying moment at the Y. I didn’t know it when I started, but this turned out to be a Story that Wanted to be Told!

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