The Voice Within: Chapter 1

Why don’t you talk?


“Why don’t you talk?”

“But you spoke to me yesterday in your house.”

“Left your tongue at home again?”

Yup, these questions were completely routine for me in my early childhood, whether I was in school, at the local grocery store, or at the dentist. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t answer those questions. Sometimes my mouth would open and close fruitlessly. The words just wouldn’t follow.

I didn’t know it had a name. I was enlightened later in my teenage years. Selective mutism. A choice between speech and silence. Personally, I don’t think I had a choice at all. My body became swamped with fear and anxiety, and my vocal cords were literally frozen. I just couldn’t let the words leave my throat in certain situations. There was a fear. Fear of… the unknown.

This is my story.


It all started in kindergarten when a classmate decided to pick on me. I was a sweet, lovable kid who couldn’t hurt a fly. I became her prey. She colored on my pictures, stamped her feet on them, pulled on my sweater, and bullied me whenever an opportunity arose. My morah didn’t do much to aid the situation, just looking on helplessly. I stopped talking to any of the adults in school, though I would happily chatter to my friends even in front of staff.

I don’t remember this properly, but my mother clearly recalls me coming home from kindergarten with a portrait of myself standing in front of a decorated wall. There I was, a pretty little girl, but unsmiling and stiff, the way I usually stood for school pictures at the time.

“Morah Shaindy said that this is a dolly because it can’t speak,” I told my mother innocently, pointing to my picture.

Shocking as this was, it was only the start of things. Morah Shaindy was one of many inexperienced teachers in my life who just didn’t know how to deal with a child who refused to talk to them.

When I entered first grade, the situation only got worse. I stopped talking entirely in school, even to my friends. I became a loner. No matter how hard my friends tried to get me to play with them, I shrugged them off and stubbornly remained at the far end of the schoolyard.

My cousin who was in the grade above me told me in our high school years how she would come to speak to me every day at recess, only to be disappointed time and time again.

My teachers were also trying to find ways to get me to open my mouth. Unfortunately, not in the right ways. They fed themselves the tale that I was stupid because it normally went together with being mute.

I used my thumb as a shield. I sat my way through classes sucking my thumb and twirling my wavy blonde hair till there were too many knots to untangle. One teacher got so fed up, she threatened to tape my thumb if I didn’t pull it out.

In the meantime, my parents were reading every available source they could get their hands on about this strange behavior their five-year-old was exhibiting. Strange, because at home with my family, close relatives, and good friends, I was a different child. It was as if my school life never existed. I was loud, talkative, giggly, and an expert at floor tantrums and getting what I wanted. I would sing and dance with my siblings and enact pretend plays and concerts. In short, I was a normal child.

That’s where it became confusing. The moment I would enter the school grounds, my feathers would compress, my spirited hazel eyes would shutter, and my lips would seal themselves for the next seven hours.

My mother tried convincing my principal that I was capable of talking and being a normal child by showing her video clips of me singing the songs of the weekly parshah, reading storybooks, and laughing and chattering.

But all the principal said was, “This isn’t Tzipporah. Your daughter cannot do these things.”


to be continued...


(Originally featured in Teen Pages., Issue 967)

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