Last weekend I spent a couple of days at my son’s school, in that annual autumn rite-of-passage in which parents sit in on their kids’ classes, talk to their teachers, and generally get a mini-immersion in their lives. As I sat in on geometry and physics classes, I began to notice that the same small group of kids raised their hands. Every time the teacher posed a question… whoosh! Up went the hand of the boy who sat third from the left, the two girls on the other side of the table. The teacher would ask for a volunteer and…whoosh! The same boy, the same girls. The teacher would try to wait it out, not make eye contact, hoping that, with time, another hand or two might go up. But no. Some kids kept their heads down and looked bored. Other kids (like mine, for instance) didn’t want to risk giving a wrong answer. Still other kids covertly played World of Warcraft on their laptops. It brought me back to my own high school and even college days with a shock of recognition.
My boy is not from the hand-raisers. My husband wasn’t a hand-raiser. I wasn’t a hand-raiser. As I watched, I found myself thinking that you could probably divide humanity into those who shoot their hands up into the air – who believe in themselves and their right to voice an opinion – and those who don’t. But what does this mean? Especially once we’re out of the academic classroom, and exist in that much larger classroom otherwise known as adult life?
I know why I never raised my hand in school. I was shy, and risk-adverse. I was afraid of embarrassment. Afraid of my own mind. I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t trust my instincts, my intuition, my intellect. I’ve daydreamed about going back to interview my old teachers — from grade school, high school, college. I wonder whether they’d remember me, and if they did, whether they could have imagined that the blurry blonde girl in the back row would grow into a woman who has a voice in the world. As I write these words, I am amazed by the truth of them. Because that blurry blonde girl still lives inside me. Everything I am, I am because of her, and in spite of her. She hovers in the background, panicky and fearful. She doesn’t believe in her own voice. She hardly even believes she has a right to exist. And yet, something larger than that girl, something more capacious and essential has managed to win out, over the fear. It wins each time I sit down to write. It wins when I get up in front of an audience, or a classroom, and tell it like it is. It wins when I take care of myself and my family. When I unroll my yoga mat. When I meditate.
Our sense of ourselves is formed from an early age — or perhaps being a hand-raiser is a genetic trait, like blue eyes, or long toes. Certainly the way we’re perceived and treated as children has a lot to do with it. And though this is the beginning of the story, it certainly isn’t the end. Next month, I’ll be leading one of my bi-annual retreats at Kripalu, and when the group assembles that first night, I will begin the way I always begin, with every single person in that room, no matter how many are there, speaking one word aloud. I do this because I know how important it is to hear our own voices. To be part of something larger than ourselves. To take a deep breath, a flying leap. To feel worthy. I know this because I live it. I have conversations with that blurry girl every single day. Raise your hand, I tell her. Be brave.