Friday, September 23, 2016

The Power of Silence

by Jean Roberta

As the person who posts last in a two-week (or fortnightly – such a handy word) cycle here at the Grip, I get to read everyone else’s post first. Much has been said about criticism, insults, negative messages aimed at us and/or our writing.

I’ve experienced some of that too, especially the question, “Why don’t you write serious literature instead?”

However, the most devastating message can be silence. If someone accuses you in words of something you haven’t done, you can defend yourself with words. If someone interprets what you have done in a way that seems insulting, you can critique their critique. If someone refuses to speak to you, the message is unanswerable. Whatever you say in response is likely to seem hysterical or unjustified – because they didn’t actually say anything, at least to your face. And the misunderstanding, the credibility gap, or the conflict goes on as though preserved in cotton wool.

“Jean, you’re just so --.”

The “co-operating” teacher never finished her sentence. Apparently she couldn’t find an adjective that was negative enough to describe me. It was the spring of 1980, and I was a student teacher in a large high school that served the upper-middle-class South End of town.

From the beginning of my four-month stint, there was tension. I already had a four-year university degree in English, and I had done all the classes for a BEAD (Bachelor of Education After Degree). All I had left to do was to get a passing grade on my practicum from my Faculty Advisor, who got his information from three “co-operating” teachers, all of whom had Education degrees only. They clearly thought I was over-educated. They all knew that if I got a pass, I would immediately graduate and enter the public school system as a high school English teacher, and I might get paid better than they did, due to my greater knowledge of language and literature. They had been wrangling teenagers for years, and they were inclined to think I was an educated fool.

Besides all this, I wasn’t Sally (as I’ll call her). This was my predecessor in the role of student teacher, and all the regular staff glowed when they mentioned her name. She must have done an excellent job of sucking up. And now here I was in her place.

Of course, I had discipline problems in the classes I was allowed (expected) to teach. Students act up when a student teacher is trying to maintain some sort of order. It’s a tradition.

I had been told that my three “co-operating” teachers would mentor me, explain their own techniques, and give me advice and support. Instead, they let me take over their classes while they hung out in the staff lounge.

At the end of four months, my three “mentors” told my Faculty Advisor that I wasn’t the stuff of which teachers are made. Faculty Advisor told me I wasn’t passing, just before I headed into a classroom of rowdy eighth-graders; later, he commented that I didn’t maintain enough discipline. (I was aware of the flying spitwads in the class, but I hadn’t found a way to force thirty kids to sit still and pay attention to me.)

Right afterward, there was a “conference” of five: Faculty Advisor, the three witches from Macbeth – uh, my “mentors” – the head of the English Department in that school, and me. One of the Team of Three smoked silently (smoking was allowed then), looked disapprovingly around the room, and hardly spoke. Another one listed my many faults, including my apparent inability to relate to high school students because I knew my subject-matter too well. The youngest one said I had an “unapproachable personality,” then made the comment quoted above, with the missing modifier.

What wasn’t said aloud upset me more than the actual complaints, which I could dispute. (But of course, when I disagreed with anyone in the room, that seemed to confirm my hostile, unapproachable nature.)

Later, I asked my Faculty Advisor what was the outcome, since he had the right to decide. He decided that I should continue my practicum, which was to last for another week, and then he would pronounce judgment. So the torture dragged on.

When my sentence was over, the youngest “co-operating” teacher told me that of course I hadn’t passed, and that this had been made clear to everyone involved, including me. (This seemed like another reference to a resounding silence.) Faculty Advisor said he felt uncomfortable giving me a failing grade, even though the practicum was supposed to be a pass or fail kind of deal. Since he didn’t think I had failed, exactly, and the Panel of Three thought I certainly had, he gave me an “Incomplete,” a kind of non-grade which prevented me from getting the degree I had worked for. To get the degree, I would have had to repeat the practicum.

So the loaded silence of those who judged me unsuitable became a gap on my resume. Luckily, I didn’t need an Education degree to teach at the university level, where knowledge is not frowned on. What I needed was a Master’s degree, which involved a somewhat different kind of torture – yet silence was still the method of choice of my new Advisor, who ignored my thesis-in-progress for months.

Before and after my stint in the High School Jungle, I often wondered whether my parents’ belief that I was hysterical and delusional (which they formed after I tried to commit suicide after being raped in my first year of university) still held, and whether my younger sisters really believed I was the madwoman of the family.

Months would pass when no one in the family called me insane – not exactly. My mother liked the term “high-strung,” which was vague enough that I couldn’t disprove it. How could I show that I was actually low-strung, or perfectly tuned? My sisters had their own concerns. So I would tell myself that bygones were bygones, and that if I noticed some eye-rolls around the supper table after I said something about the existence of institutional violence in any form, I was probably imagining the silent sarcasm.

Then something would happen to remind me that my image as the Madwoman was firmly intact. After the first time I brought my current spouse home to meet my family, she seemed shaken, and she urged me never to list my parents as my “next of kin” on any form that would give them legal power over me.

Later, she explained that my parents had taken her aside to tell her I was “completely lost,” that I didn’t know what I wanted in life (I thought I did), and that I really needed a husband to take care of me. This advice was clearly intended to scare off a lesbian date. Being the radical she is, Spouse rose to the occasion, told my parents she knew everything she needed to know about me, and that she would form her own opinions.

Since then, my parents have passed into a deeper silence, and my sisters no longer speak to me. Their silence doesn’t feel peaceful, but I can’t believe my well-intentioned friends who assure me that a “good talk” amongst the three of us would resolve a lifetime of distrust and disbelief. In some cases, silence is probably the only logical response.



  1. In some cases, silence is probably the only logical response.

    I have become increasingly sensitive to the futility, most of the time, of trying to explain oneself to people who just don't get it. I've usually found that there is no clarification or amplification that can get around somebody's inability to comprehend or imagine anything outside his or her own preexisting assumptions and simplistic perspective. I'm all for clearing up minor or specific misunderstandings with people who are capable of listening and learning; but I've come to feel that "people who just don't get it" are usually a lost cause. Even on the occasions when, in the moment, I seem to have made an impression on them, they usually forget we ever had that conversation and revert to whatever they thought before (perhaps a form of confirmation bias?).

  2. "Whatever you say in response is likely to seem hysterical or unjustified – because they didn’t actually say anything, at least to your face."

    I'm particularly struck by this part of what you wrote. I've struggled a lot with that problem. The disapproval communicated by silence often bothers me more than a string of insults because it seems boundless, and yet it's hard to engage with it without seeming over-sensitive or touchy—even when it's being deliberately deployed.

    It's really telling that your parents' silence translated into those particular words to your future spouse. It's awesome that you have a spouse who's ready to stand up for you like that.

  3. There are all too many instances in which silence is interpreted as admission of guilt, but exponentially more where we'd be better off just to keep our mouth's shut.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Jeremy, Annabeth, and Sacchi. Even after many years, I still sometimes wonder if I could have changed several outcomes by finding the exactly right thing to say, the phrase that would have been understood. Probably not. Toward that end, I wrote my parents a letter after I had moved in with Spouse, and my parents disapproved of her two sons -- not to mention Spouse herself, and my identity as her partner. I spent some time crafting the letter, and left it in my parents' mailbox. They never returned it, so I'm fairly sure they read it, but they never mentioned it or answered it in any way. That was my signal that I was trying to communicate with a brick wall. My consolation prize is that I've had a fairly good life, including a long teaching career.

  5. Sometimes the concept of family is an ill-considered fantasy. Just that they're family doesn't mean the want the best for you. They often want what they perceive as the best for them.

  6. The problem seems to have been that you were exceptional, while every one around you was ordinary.

    I'm so grateful you have found people who appreciate you. For the record, I've known you for at least fifteen years, and I've never seen a trace of insanity in anything you've said or done. (As someone who spent three months in a state psychiatric institution, I have some claim to being able to judge!) In fact, I'm continually impressed by the opposite -- how matter of fact you manage to be about the challenges you've faced in your life.

  7. Thank you, Lisabet! I'm honoured. Daddy X, that is so true. Whenever I repeated something I had heard somewhere to my parents, my mother would say "consider the source." Ironically, she was one of the sources I needed to consider.


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