That Time You Held Your Tongue -- The Fruit of Shutting Up

10/10/2020


Me, in a desperate attempt to shut the hell up every time I read foolishness.

On a recent progress report, The Girl was described as “extremely bright and enthusiastic -- at times a little too enthusiastic about those around her.” In the past, other reports have read, “eager to share her thoughts with the class -- sometimes too eager to share her thoughts with her neighbor.” One teacher just flat out said, “She’s smart, but she talks too much.”


Humph.


At the time, I contemplated a counter attack. “Dear Teacher, Per your ‘talks too much’ critique of my daughter, what exactly is it you’re suggesting I stifle…” But I let it go because I’d already been down that road once before. Instead, I held my tongue.


*****


When I was nine I had a lot to say too and viewed silence as wasted opportunity. As an adult, I’ve battled with nervous chit-chat because I have this ridiculous need to make everyone comfortable even if what I add to a completely normal lull in conversation is pointless, awkward, and often entirely too much information. (See “That Time You STHU".) One might say that someone should have gotten the hook around me years ago. My third grade teacher certainly tried.


It was long division season in Math class and, as usual, it was all Greek to me.


“See!” my teacher tried (failingly) to bring me to her level of enthusiasm. “You put the dividend in a little house and in order for the divisor to find the quotient, he has to knock on the door.”


I mean, really. That’s a stretch, lady. House or no house, it’s still Math and still a snooze fest compared to the kick ball rematch just minutes away.


I chatted about such matters of importance with my neighbor.


“Annie, if you have something to say, please raise your hand.” Strike one from the teacher.


Was it just me, or was the house really not helping with how and when which number was carried or how many spaces we were to move to the right after subtracting.


I chatted about such matters of importance with my neighbor.


“Annie, this is your second warning.” This was accompanied with a glare.


Okay, so three goes into sixteen...five times. Sixteen minus fifteen is one...move that over, drop down the four. Three goes into fourteen...one, two, three, FOUR times. I was getting the hang of this one and nearing my first correct quotient in my limited history of long division.


“Yes!” I blurted out. “Got it!”


I raised my notebook and proudly showed off my both tidy and accurate house.


“That’s it, Annie!”


My euphoria was brief. My teacher had reached her limit. It was inevitable. I was a repeat offender, enough that when she retired I’m fairly certain as she flipped through her catalog of homerooms, my face stuck out among her motivations to retire. “I cannot teach another Annie,” she probably said. This being her last straw, I wasn’t simply punished from recess or given punish work. No, my multiple offenses warranted her dragging my desk from the third row to what amounted to a third grade deserted island. My desk, my book bag, my pencils and notebooks were basically in another time zone in the room, a good fifteen feet from the nearest third grader and clear across the room for my teacher’s desk.


Having a hermit lifestyle forced upon you is a lonely existence. There was no one to turn my eyes toward and roll when our teacher announced a pop quiz. When one of the boys tooted, it was pointless for me to hold my nose and laugh because everyone knew I was too far away to smell its effects. But I held my head high and considered my exile with a sense of pride. I had been misunderstood, underestimated for the acute observations I brought to my mean old teacher’s icy classroom. I was really no different from Joan of Arc if you considered that my interruptions were merely meant to help the greater good. History would remember me fondly, like Joan, and my teacher would rue the day she sent me away.


Okay so I had a flair for drama as a child. But I did eventually curb the chit-chat. A little. In sixth grade I was punished for excessive humming. (I remain guilty to this day. Ask anyone within twenty feet of any idle work I do.) My ninth grade Life Science teacher referred to me as “cocky,” for which I was grounded. (Fourteen was my brief bout with rebellion.) And my Comparative Religions professor would probably like to forget the uninvited debate in which I challenged his lecture about Buddhism not being a religion. (Call it meditation instead of prayer and an enlightened path instead of a spiritual path, but it’s still the pursuit of a superhuman power, man.) But overall, fear of awkward silence at cocktail parties aside, I’ve learned that the art of knowing when to hold your tongue is a most underappreciated weapon -- maybe more underappreciated than a spunky nine-year-old girl.


This is a tough concept to accept in a world with growing liberation for new and radical ideas. Everyone has a voice and a platform now, thanks to social media. Times are changing. Girls are the new superheroes. The planet is bending to previously ignored wills. Hashtags prove people are, in fact, listening. But is it necessary to always be heard, or is there something to be said (pun intended) for shutting up?

*****


I recently read about a Benedictine monk tradition called “keeping custody of your tongue.” The idea isn’t to never speak one’s mind, but to be aware of the consequences a tongue might render. In other words, don't be outraged if, when you challenge someone, your words lead to a bigger mess than you anticipated. This isn’t to say that big moments in history weren’t made possible by loud, brave voices that put caution to the wind and spoke out against injustices. But it is to say that not all moments in life are a turning point in history. Sorry, Little Exiled Annie, you were just a mischievous kid who deserved to be punished for not listening, and you in that Facebook argument over there, is the fight really a game changer? Is your energy truly going toward what is “right,” or is it more that you have to be right?


The problem is that sometimes we fight for the “right” things, believing that we are right, but we miss the mark. I do it all the time. I may have learned to “respect my authoritah,” but I still tingle at the sound of my voice (or typed comment) when in the midst of a good punch. Ha! There. Now you’ve been proven wrong. How do you feel now? I slink away to another screen or another task, basking in my flagrant boldness. But in the comments section where I dropped the mic or to the person with whom I just fired back a good one, what I really dropped was a steaming pile of shit because what a waste perfectly formulated words are when they don’t lead to any good. What’s the point in being right when we’re too arrogant to be taken seriously?


There’s a phrase I have taken to in this hellish, craptastic year of inconsistencies and hypocrisies: Don’t answer fools with foolishness. It’s a play on the proverb, "Don't answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are.” It’s my preferred “is it worth it?” marker when faced with an opportunity in which to give an opinion or argument. I could see how some may interpret it as another way of saying “you can’t teach stupid.” But I think that’s just more loaded language with no desire to produce any fruit. It’s another label, and labelling gets us literally nowhere. An apple tree doesn’t produce apples because of its name. It bears fruit because it’s given proper nourishment and uninterrupted time in which to grow them. People are no different. Labels and zingers don’t produce change. They produce hate. What produces change isn’t fighting, but, rather, building. And that requires listening to understand and not listening to be heard. Sometimes great unfavorability does make change. Sometimes uncomfortability leads to a more comfortable life. And also, sometimes silence doesn’t always mean yes. It’s often a powerful no.


*****


I know enough to know that while I am no Joan of Arc -- not in third grade and certainly not now -- I can still celebrate quiet victories, most notably, when successfully discerning when to hold my tongue and when to build relationships through respect and fruitful conversation. My words have always been my greatest weapon and my greatest weakness. But they aren’t all for folly. In fact, Little Impertinent Annie was right about something. One day my words would lead to plenty of good -- not just right here in this digital thought bubble, but in how I’m guiding the next generation of chatterbox nine-year-olds.


Just yesterday, The Girl was singing to Hamilton in her bedroom as she dressed for ballet class. Outside her door, Middle Man, the big brother nemesis of our young heroine, crooned to “Helpless” in mockery. There was a pause within the room followed by a loud, “Shut up, asshat!” from The Girl before she carried on with her concert. On our way to class, I asked her, “Do you think maybe it’s unkind to call your brother an asshat?” She looked at me as if I had just questioned why a person would be rebuked for sticking a pencil in Mona Lisa’s eye. “Mom, I could have said a lot worse,” she explained. “I could have said, ‘Shut up you, (insert expletive no mother wants to hear her nine-year-old say) asshat.”


Humph.


I considered a counter argument but let it go. The Girl might have just effortlessly dropped the f-bomb, but she’d shown restraint -- albeit of the weakest kind. It was a slow start, but together we’d find the mix of moxie and mercy she’ll need to be a righteous custodian of her tongue because just as the the sign hung above her bed alluding to her stature reads, “And though [it] be but little, [the tongue] is fierce.”



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