Finding My Voice in English

By Alina Leholm

I’ve always been told I’m quiet. From elementary school to high school, people used either “shy,” “quiet,” or “not much of a talker” to describe me. Some of my classmates in high school would even go as far as to label me as “a person that dislikes people.” The truth is, I’m not anti-social or unwilling to talk. My quiet nature has sprouted from previous life experiences.

When I was young, my mother and I immigrated from Ukraine to the US to join my father. I spoke not a word of English. Since I was eligible to attend preschool, my parents enrolled me into an English-speaking school and hoped I would pick up English there. Though I did learn English at that school, I also began to acquire shyness that would accompany me for many years to come.

My fellow preschoolers were friendly enough, yet I found it difficult to communicate as I did not speak English fluently. Luckily, there was not much speaking I had to do, so I was able to join in typical games of “house” and ride on tricycles. When we did activities that required speaking English, like singing, I was quiet most of the time and stuck to humming the tune. After many months of preschool and my parents teaching me English, I started to speak the language. I tried to speak with my new friends and found that they spoke back to me. I was overjoyed. My English grew as I went into kindergarten, and by second grade I knew most of the language. Yet, my school administration did not think so.

I stayed classified as an ELL, an English language learner, all the way until I left elementary school in sixth grade. Throughout my early elementary school years, I was frequently pulled out of class to practice pronunciation. My fellow classmates did not understand this, and I began to lose friends. This was bewildering to me as I did not understand why my “best friends” no longer wanted to play with me. The answer soon became clear: while I thought I knew English, my different reading partners in class clearly thought the opposite.

I remember a time when I was struggling to say the names of large numbers such as two hundred or a thousand, and my classmates soon became angry at my inability to say the numbers. “Don’t you know how to read?” my peer exclaimed angrily and then ignored me for the rest of that partner reading session. My feelings hurt, I soon realized my classmates did not accept me for who I was anymore. My accent and slow reading earned me glares, and I no longer enjoyed participating in class. At the parent-teacher conference, my teacher told my parents I was “shy” and did not contribute to class discussions.

By the end of second grade, my parents revealed to me we were to move to another country. I was almost relieved by the news as it meant I would no longer have to deal with the torment of my peers. I was wrong. Those three years in France only increased my shyness. My school was an international school, yet many of my classmates were British children. I was the only American in my grade. Once again, I was excluded because of my accent, and I found it difficult to fit in with all the other children. I felt awkward speaking to my classmates, and I realized we hardly shared any common interests. By the time my family moved back to the United States, I was shier than ever.

As soon as we returned to America, I knew I would have difficulty finding friends. After three years of battling my shyness and struggling to not be overlooked by teachers, I finally made two friends. My new friends and I entered high school together, yet these new friendships did not change the way I was treated by others around me. Various remarks about my accent and shyness were made by both teachers and students alike. Only this year, I managed to reveal to my classmates why I am so shy.

In my English class, our teacher assigned a project that required us to read a nonfiction book. The book I chose was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I was amazed at how well I could relate to the book, and I became excited to share my thoughts with my classmates. Each student was to write a blog about their discoveries with their book. That blog became my voice.

My first blog post garnered a large number of comments from my classmates. Each comment told me that my book’s topic was relatable and that my writing style was admirable. By the time I finished all my blog posts, many of my classmates had revealed they were also quiet or shy in one way or another and that they now understood me. I never thought I could make such a difference with a blog about this book.

I now continue to overcome my shyness, and my classmates include me more in group discussions. I learned to embrace my accent and to be more confident around people. Sometimes people just need to be reminded that quiet people do exist and the inclusion of all people is very important.