I stood in front of my restless students, patiently awaiting their attention. Excited, I smiled at each of them, eager to begin our unit on Gothic literature. This was the first day of my student teaching experience. I was simultaneously thrilled and terrified. I wore a smart, navy wool suit and my favorite pair of sensible flats. As the moments ticked by, I fixed my students with “The Look.” We all know “The Look” from having been students ourselves. It’s that pinched face one’s teacher makes when she has attempted to appear patient and yet she really has a rather full agenda and she’s painstakingly aware of the passing of each lost instructional moment into the ether of eternity.
I collected my thoughts into the present moment, clearing my throat. A hushed murmur rippled through the room. And yet, I heard a word, a whisper, bouncing across the room. I cocked my head, lilting my ear toward my students. I heard the word. I smiled. “Are you playing the penis game?” I asked loudly. “Because I just won.”
I think about this story in the context of my growing up experience. My family stems from hardy Scandinavian and English stock. Never before has such an inhibited strand of DNA collided to form a human more genetically predisposed to stuffing, to hiding, to whispering those words that aren’t used in “polite” company. Words like penis (Look at that—my computer didn’t explode as I typed those five little letters that, strung together, form one of the most oft used words on the planet).
In my house, there were always words we whispered. Words referring to bodily functions were uttered at such a low and breathy decibel that I’m not actually sure I really ever heard them at all. But there were other verbal transgressions that were not permitted the air necessary to give them volume. Words like cancer. Or alcoholic. Or period. AIDS was one in particular that was not uttered in our home until six years after my Uncle died from it. Words have power; but in not speaking them, in not giving breath, we hope to deflect their power away from us, into some other cosmos, where we are insulated, protected, safe.
As a recent college grad, I landed a job at an AIDS foundation called Cure AIDS Now! I found myself in many different classrooms throughout Miami-Dade county teaching HIV and AIDS education. I found myself fielding questions like, “If I have a friend who fisted a guy…could he have AIDS?” and “If someone has AIDS and they cut themselves while cooking for you, can you get AIDS?”
“How did I get here?” I wondered. How had I managed to shirk the whole of my DNA, packaged in the soundproofing of politeness, to stand in front of a classroom and use the words “dental dam”?
Truth matters. Your truth, my truth, the truth. Our collective truth as a species matters. The ugly truth, the whole story, the ‘warts and all’ version of the tale is honest, human, and important. Each and every one of us lives a life that cannot be denied. It cannot be whispered away. You have cancer. He has AIDS. I have anxiety. Every one of these blemishes, when revealed, makes us more real, more tangible, more honest with who we are and why we’re here to walk in tandem with each other. It’s all a part of the story. These bits and pieces connect our journeys, binding us in a shared, human experience.
Who are you? What are the words you whisper? What power do they hold over you? And how might you lessen their influence on your life by speaking them aloud?