A friend once said that one of my strengths was “unlocking a conversation and cutting right to the heart of a matter.” Years later, these words still stick out in my mind, because I needed to hear that back then. I always worried that, in my concern with details, I talked around everything too much, causing people to lose interest before I ever got to the point. It was nice to hear that at least one person was able to stick it out until the end.
Then I became a public speaking instructor, and it became my job to get to the point. I became good at it, and I became good at teaching other people to do it. The fear subsided.
Now I work with college students all the time. I still teach part-time, but even in the full-time job when I’m not officially an educator, I am surrounded by people whose focus (for the most part) is processing information and figuring out how they fit into the world. As the token adult in the room (although technically, the term “adult” applies to everyone), I am often a sounding board to help them gauge how well they’re doing it (and whether they are crossing lines). There are also whispers and low voices in corners that they think I can’t hear, but they are not good at being sneaky yet, so that often becomes a learning opportunity, too.
They are used to me having something to say when issues of oppression arise. They expect me to be Supermouth. This expectation is both welcome and terrifying. I’m glad to do it, but it’s a big responsibility, and I’m not always great at it. Sometimes, we stumble through together. Mostly, though, they just listen. This is another thing that is both good and problematic.
I have a new fear.
When something happens on campus or in the world that demands notice – a rape, a suicide, irresponsible political statements about immigration, a collapsed mine or sweatshop factory that killed underpaid workers, a black girl thrown to the ground by someone she should have been able to trust to respond better, nine black people gunned down in their place of worship – they are learning to have conversations. But when someone in the room talks about something controversial or says something off-color, they all pause and look at me. I am happy to speak, but I am concerned that they are relying on me to do the speaking. I am afraid they are letting things slide – you know, the way my friends and I at that age would often let things slide – when I’m not around.
Because that’s a big part of the problem. We – both historically and currently – let things slide when there’s not a Supermouth present to confront these events and call them what they are –
Heterosexism (and, um, WordPress, I’m gonna need you to recognize that as a word. It’s not new.).
A small part of me wants to remind myself that I did the same thing when I was their age. A larger part of me wants to add “…but that doesn’t make it okay.” A larger part of me is both guilty of allowing important words to go unsaid and sorry that I can’t take it back, and I don’t want that to be their story twenty years from now when they’re the Supermouth in the room. I want them to succeed where we have failed. I want to believe that it’s not too late for us to change.
I will still speak up, but I am also learning to ask the question, “What do you have to say about that?”