This summer we worked with a group of young reporters in the WUNC Youth Radio Institute. They included Mashallah Salaam, a 16 year old high school graduate from Chapel Hill.
I’m someone who has always been labeled as shy. I used to get talked over and brushed off because I’m quiet. Growing up, I never spoke until I knew exactly what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. My mom, Damita Hicks, says it’s because I was around more adults than kids.
“You know you were a, you were a quiet child, but you were also very strong willed and—but we knew you had a very profound ability to use language,” she says, laughing.
I had a lot to say but I didn’t often say it. In school, I held back and had trouble meeting friends. I’ve been home-schooled on and off since the first grade. My mom says she’s worried that her shyness may have rubbed off on me.
“I was such a shy child myself, and even growing up, I guess I’ve been shy all my life,” she says. “And I didn’t want you to grow up being shy as I was and I think a lot of it for me was lack of confidence.”
I don’t think homeschooling made me quiet. I had always been this way, even when I was in public schools. My friend Sharon Dominguez and I went to Carrboro High School together during 9thgrade.
“Well this is the E Wing on our school, like upper E Wing, and this is usually where we used to hang out,” Dominguez says.
We met up there, and I asked her what our friends thought of me.
“Well, the first one is that you’re really shy. That’s the first one,” Dominguez says. “The second one is that you’re quiet. The third one is that you’re funny, which obviously is true. ‘Cause like, I mean I guess anybody who doesn’t know somebody, like a stranger, they usually say they’re quiet. But if you know them really well you get to know how funny they are.”
Normally people like me blend in – kind of fade into the crowd. But I was actually in a crowd when I met someone who’s helped me stand out. Patricia Parker is a Communications Studies professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. She runs a program called Striving Sisters Speak. It’s designed to build the next generation of African American women leaders. My mom, who learned about this group, insisted we meet.
“The thing I must have noticed about how you acted was very spiritual and centered and grounded,” Parker says.” I don’t remember what we talked about but I just remember noticing that about you.”
And I thought I was shy, quiet, or even soft spoken. But Miss Pat – that’s what we call her – she disagreed.
“ I believe that leadership is very much, for me, connected to a belief in the humanity and the gifts of other people,” Parker says. “And there are lots of different ways of creating that space for those gifts to come out.”
Not too long ago, I had trouble speaking to anyone I didn’t know well. But Miss Pat now has me leading meetings with Striving Sisters Speak.
Miss Pat has me teaching one or two other girls at a time.
“Sometimes the person who is the quietest person in the room has the most knowledge to share and also may be the person who’s leading the way in terms of how to access that knowledge,” she says.
I thought for a long time that I needed to overcome shyness, until I realized that this quietness led me to be a very good observer and listener. When I thought I was bad at making friends, Sharon told me that I was fun to be around. When I thought that I couldn’t speak, my mom told me that I have a way with words. When I thought I wasn’t strong enough, Miss Pat told me – I am a leader. This made my mom proud.
“ Well, I think the main reason is because when you have something important to say. I don’t think it’s fair even to the world to just keep it bottled up, you know,” my mom says. “And I think that your wisdom and your ability to bring peace is so key in this world today.”
And all I needed was for someone to listen to me. For someone else to be … quiet.