the silent presence

it’s on the tip of my tongue

The answer, 71, was on the tip of my tongue.  But the moment I opened my mouth, something inside forced me to swallow the confident voice back down my throat.

And so ensued yet another one of those awkward in-class silences that felt like an eternity. My teacher looked at me as though she was expecting an answer, but I stared right back at her blankly, keeping my response locked away in the bottom of my throat, buried somewhere far beyond my reach. Sitting on the edge of my seat, I finally summoned the courage to raise my hand, but just as I did, someone yelled from the back of the room, “71!” He was much, much louder than that screaming yet inaudible voice inside my head. I sank self-consciously into my seat, desperately wishing I could cower under the table and fade away into invisibility.

As always, I was one step too late. A mental sketch surfaced in my head: the number 71 as a creature caged behind metal bars in my mind, struggling to break free, but constantly bogged down by my infinite, insecure thoughts. What if the answer is wrong? What if she doesn’t hear me? What if…

Fast forward a year, to my junior year English class. We had been asked to deliver presentations on a specific section of Pride and Prejudice, and there I was, notebook in hand, sitting at a round discussion table with my teacher positioned directly opposite me. As I stared intently at my notebook, it struck me that I could no longer explain the phrases and quotes scribbled on the paper. The ideas I had recited over and over again—in my room, in the shower, even on the bus to school—had somehow escaped me.

“Hi, everyone…” I finally began, but soon found my tongue-tied, fidgety self mumbling through the first three bullet points. By the time I got to my fourth point, my mind was so occupied with thoughts about how slowly time was passing and about the sight of my teacher’s furrowed eyebrows that I completely lost track of which point I had just presented. “Oh wait… hold on… I’m sorry…” I stuttered, panicking, as my eyes frantically searched for words on the paper to fill the daunting silence.

By helplessly searching for clues in my momentarily dysfunctional memory and in my indecipherable handwriting, I did eventually survive what felt like a five-minute version of the Amazing Race. Nevertheless, I soon realized this would no doubt be yet another tragic experience that I would tuck safely away in the back of my memory, one that I would never allow to resurface.

Unsurprisingly, when my first semester report card arrived in the mail, every subject teacher’s report included variations of essentially the same comment. My English teacher began his paragraph-long note with “Agnes is a silent presence in my class.” My math teacher wrote, “Agnes often has little to say in class.” My history teacher ended an overall positive comment with “I would encourage Agnes to contribute more to class discussions.” Needless to say, it was like reading through an entire thesaurus entry on the countless different ways to describe the quietness of a student.

The next three semesters were no different. I was so often referred to as the “silent presence,” the “quiet student,” and the “reserved one,” that I started to sink comfortably into that identity. I stopped making an effort to speak in class discussions, to answer questions in class, or even to better myself from the hopeless public speaker that I was.

And so, I have made it my task in college to become a confident speaker. I am not referring to developing public speaking skills—oh, that is a long way off—but rather the basic yet ever-so-grueling task of voicing my ideas in a first year seminar on Victorian literature, asking a question in a teach-in on the Cold War, questioning an analysis of a poem or a novel, or even just shouting out the answer in a Calculus course.

I hear a lot of talk amongst college freshmen about their ambitions for the next four years, and more often than not, I am perplexed by their lofty aspirations: they talk about wanting to be entrepreneurs or wanting to save lives, and yet here I am, shamelessly focusing on small but necessary milestones, trying so hard to accomplish what others can do with such ease.

Perhaps then, in the very near future, I will be able to compose a sequel to this piece, recounting that one time when the answer, 71, was on the tip of my tongue, and a quiet yet confident voice emerged.