When I was in the fifth grade I made it to the finals in both a public speaking contest and spelling bee—both were in front of the entire school. My tiny body strutted to the podium. The ocean of bobbing, grinning parents and siblings didn't scare me. No nerves entered my body, instead, self-reliance fired into the audience. I puffed my chest out. My voice didn't rattle—it rang clear.
I didn't win first place in either contest. But I remember the poise and self-assurance I felt in front of all those people. At age 11, my confidence climbed.
But it only soared a little longer.
In the sixth grade, I excelled in drama even as a brand new middle schooler. I was invited to be in a local commercial promoting the arts in school. I stood tall—petite—but tall. My voice boomed louder in the middle school hallways. The teachers didn't like it. I heard it all. "Angela, you need to be quiet." "Lower your voice!" and worse, "Stop talking."
Something else started happening, too. My hips widened and small hills appeared on my chest a little earlier than my classmates. I no longer stood tall. I quieted. Just like I was told to do.
We shot that commercial at the end of the school year. It took far too many takes because of my jitters and newfound insecurity. My drama teacher was annoyed. Instead of encouragement, I heard, "Your mother is going to be here soon, you need to get this right. Come on."
From then on, I would remain talkative in social settings, but academically, I sat tensely at my desk. I didn't want my opinions heard—because the adults didn't want to hear them. And I never took another drama class. Today, at age 36, and earning my second grad degree, my voice still quakes when I have to give a speech behind the podium.
But now I have a daughter, and she's only three, but she's mighty. Like me. And I won't let anyone dim her light. Even if she's a little loud in the hallways I'll always remind her, "Your voice is important." I will always encourage her to let her light shine.
This past week my daughter and I sat in the bleachers during her big brother's indoor soccer game. Well, I sat—she jumped around—electric. She captivated everyone. A father was sitting behind us and my daughter kept throwing him the soccer ball—and a spontaneous game of catch ensued. Her pigtails bounced when she pranced down the bleachers, running to get the ball. When he'd miss a catch, she'd march up to him and say, "You need to catch it!" Then she'd squeal. I didn't stop her.
She has a fire inside her, and I never want it to go away. I never want her to feel like she has lost it. I never want her to feel like she has to be submissive or meek. Or like she is being hushed. She doesn't have to smile if she doesn't want to. She can be loud. She can take up space. She can be feisty. She should feel empowered.
I remember, like it was yesterday, the teachers who fired their scorn at my vivacity—until it dwindled to just a flicker. Today, I feel cheated by those teachers. They made me feel inadequate as a developing young woman. And now, as a mother, I wonder—what could have been?
But I won't let my daughter wonder that same thing. Today, if we're in a doctor's waiting room, restaurant, or sporting event, she chats with everyone. Life shoots out of her. Enthusiasm radiates from her body. And sometimes, I can tell—people become a little put off. I've seen eyes roll. Heads turn away. But I don't care. I won't stop her. As long as she's not being rude or disrespectful, she's harmless. She's being a kid. She's enjoying her life. She's discovering who she is.
I want her to always feel that confidence like she does today. I won't silence her. I won't let her feel cheated.
And when she's older, I want her to confidently speak up in a class discussion, to fearlessly tell a joke at a party, to flawlessly give a speech in front of a crowd. To have courage when she needs to speak out about an injustice and to have poise when she needs to articulate her feelings. To feel comfortable using her words, as I remind her now—and for the rest of her life.