By Kayla McCloud
I replaced my traditional Catholic school uniform with a shirt that read: "Some dudes marry dudes. Get over it." It was the monthly tag day when students are not required to wear uniforms. Once I arrived at school, I immediately noticed the stares and heard not-so-subtle whispers from passers-by. Walking to a special Spirit Day breakfast, one of the school's toughest teachers stopped me: "That shirt is not allowed. Do you have a sweatshirt or jacket you can put on?" "Yes," I obeyed without putting up a fight. I changed into a Union Catholic sweatshirt. Somehow, later in the school day, I mustered up the courage to take it off. Yet I carried the sweatshirt around with me just to be safe in case I ran into any strict teachers.
I did not encounter any more problems that day, but I was angry with myself for not standing up for my beliefs. I had subconsciously become that little girl again -- the girl who was afraid to speak up, the girl who did not have a voice at school. At the age of five, I was diagnosed with Selective Mutism, an anxiety disorder in which a child who is normally capable of speech is unable to speak in certain situations, or to certain people. I was comfortable talking to members of my immediate family and close friends. Yet at school, I did not talk to anyone. I remember the first day of first grade. I sat down at a table and a little boy introduced himself to me, "Hi I'm Devin. What's your name?" I waved at him, and remained silent. He was waiting for a reply, but he never got one. His face was filled with confusion. He asked me "Why aren't you talking?" That was just another question unanswered. A girl sitting across from us jumped in: "She isn't going to talk to you. That's the girl that doesn't talk."
With the help of intensive and interactive therapy at age seven, I gradually began to speak in school. On the first day of high school, I witnessed how far I had come. Full of nerves, I walked into my freshman homeroom. It was completely and utterly silent. You could hear a pin drop in the room. I sat in an empty seat next to a girl whom I had never met before. When I sat down, we made eye contact and I whispered "Hi." Her face lit up and she murmured, "Hey, I'm Julie." We continued talking until homeroom was over. Our conversation was the only indication of life in the room. Somehow, I put my voice to use that day when everyone else remained silent with the first-day-of-high-school jitters.
Through my struggles with communicating, I learned how important it is to be heard and understood. I recognized that language, whether spoken aloud or written on a T-shirt, was powerful. My struggles have sensitized me to people who are shy. If I see a person sitting alone in a room, the extroverted side of me takes over and I go to introduce myself. Nevertheless, there are times when I feel like that silent five-year-old girl again. Specifically, the day I was forced to hide the shirt that expressed my views, which some found controversial. Like a child hiding under a blanket, I hid under the blanket of mutism.
If I could relive that day, I would not let my fear win that battle over the warring tensions inside me. I would refuse to be silent. After my experience with Selective Mutism, I promised myself that I would always have a voice. No matter what, I will be heard. I regret breaking that promise over a shirt that was an expression of my true voice.
Kayla McCloud is a freshman at George Washington University and a 2012 graduate of Union Catholic School High School in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.