“Why are you so quiet over there?” a relative asked in my general direction at a family gathering. I was around 10 or 12 years old and lost in thought.
An older relative fully snapped me out of my reverie when she replied, “Shannon’s a good girl. She’s always quiet.”
This relative didn’t intend anything malicious by what she said. It was meant as a compliment. She said it fondly, lovingly, with a caring smile as she looked at me. I’m sure it came from the way she was raised, in the era of “children should be seen and not heard” and that sort of thing.
I grew even quieter. Her comment had given me more to think about.
It’s true; I was a quiet girl. Not out of a sense of shyness or because I didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t hesitate to raise my hand in school, and I wasn’t scared to speak when spoken too. I was just in my head a lot. As a girl who spent many of her days and even nights with her nose in a book, a lot was going on in my head.
Was I a “good girl” because I was quiet? I had always identified with the good girl strain of things. Typical firstborn, straight A’s, type A, honors classes, perfectionist, always followed the rules. Was this another thing I was or needed to be? Were good girls quiet, too?
My quiet continued throughout young adulthood. I was a good girl. Whatever I may have thought in my head, I didn’t express it out loud.
I was quiet in the days and years following September 11th, as people around me vilified Muslims and anyone who wore a turban. That a few terrorists had come to define an entire world religion, an entire people was disturbing to me. I was young, newly absorbed in high school, and I didn’t know how to use my voice to combat the terrible parodies and ignorant language I heard around me.
I was quiet when my confirmation teacher told us to blindly adhere to the tenets of Catholicism. “For example, you can’t get married as a Catholic if you know you can’t have children,” she told my group of 9th graders, “It’s hard for even me to understand, but because I’m Catholic, I believe it.” That sounded absurd to me — both the rule (if it actually existed) and her blind adherence to it. My mind swirled with thoughts, questions, and opinions for the rest of class, but I swallowed them and got confirmed a year later anyway.
I was quiet during the first presidential election I was able to participate in after turning 18. I silently, resentfully voted for John McCain because I felt the entire Christian culture pushing me to do so, even though I was intrigued by the youthful, eloquent, hope-filled Barack Obama. Truth be told, I had a strong feeling that Obama would win after eight years of the Bush administration. It helped me feel slightly less guilty about my own vote, but the fact that I didn’t vote the way I wanted still bothers me.
I was quiet as my small church group discussed homosexuality and gay marriage. Though people in the group came from all sides and opinions on the topic, my own brain was in turmoil. I wasn’t quite sure what I believed. I’d heard a lot of things from the church on this issue. Lots of “love the sinner, hate the sin” kind of talk. That didn’t sit quite right with me — so we were supposed to welcome them through the door with open arms and then later tell them to change? It all sounded like the very opposite of “God is love.” This was a much more difficult belief to swallow. I had been hearing these ideas from the church for so long now, how did I even stand up for gay rights? My brain swirled as I attempted to harness a multitude of thoughts and express them well. Maybe I had been quiet for too long at this point. It haunted me that I didn’t know how to form the right words to stand up for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve been practicing how to use my voice. The 16-year-old girl who wanted to be liked and seen as “good” doesn’t really care about other people’s opinions now that she’s a 31-year-old woman. To be quite frank, she has no more fucks left to give.
(My teenage ears are earmuffing themselves out of duty. Now it’s a regular part of my vocabulary.)
There are too many abuses going on in our country, in our world, now, for me to remain quiet. Immigration, border walls, LGBTQ rights, sexism, institutional racism, the rights of children, the rights of mothers, slavery, climate change, the importance of journalism, politics, and that damn President of ours. To name a few.
I’m using my voice to say:
Not on my watch.
This is not okay.
I cannot stay silent.
Really, I think I’m growing into who I’ve always been.
When one of my friends bemoaned how unpatriotic it was for Colin Kaepernick to kneel at football games, I gave him a brief rundown on what Colin was protesting and where it stemmed from — how a former Green Beret was actually the one who encouraged him to kneel, since kneeling is a sign of the highest respect. I didn’t deter my friend from his opinion, but I slept better that night knowing I had used my voice.
When a group of relatives discussed the tragedy of a group of drug offenders —“black people, obviously”— who had recently been released without being charged, I asked how they felt when white people had been let off the hook for similar drug-related crimes for decades. It was their turn to be quiet.
Four years after my first presidential election, I did finally cast that vote, this time to re-elect the still charming, still eloquent, still hope-filled Barack Obama. Where I once voted for certain candidates because I thought as a Christian I was “supposed” to, I now have no qualms telling everyone that this year I will only vote for Democratic or Independent candidates, preferably progressive female ones.
I’m working to use my voice well. Harnessing the multitude of swirling thoughts still doesn’t come easily for me when my gut-reaction these days tends towards righteous anger. (As Sarah from the Pantsuit Politics podcast says, “Righteous anger is my favorite emotion.” Truth.) It may (read: usually always does) take me a bit of time before I can react with calmness, with gentleness, with patience. But the more I practice using my voice, the easier it becomes to respond in a loving, intelligent manner instead of a thoughtless, harmful one.
I’m listening to that still, small voice inside, encouraging it to be not so still and small anymore. The tension between my anger and the fear of how it may be perceived is a small one compared to the tragedy of not using my voice at all. I have thoughts, I have questions, I have opinions, and I’m not quite as afraid to express them. I’m not going to let people tell me what I can or cannot do; what I can or cannot believe. I’m not going to sit by when people make comments that go against everything I hold dear in my deepest heart of hearts. This recovering good girl would rather have an uncomfortable conversation in the moment than lay awake at bedtime wishing I’d have spoken up.
If good girls are quiet, I don’t want to be a good girl anymore.