Losing the Fear to Raise My Voice

By: Anna Steinbock

The audience piled in, occupying every chair and square inch of ground. Curious teachers lined the walls, lunches in hand. Latecomers stood outdoors to listen. I sat anxiously in a chair, front and center. A relatively new place for me, considering I was once the shy, quiet girl who barely talked and cried when her mom left her side. This shyness continued until I reached a monumental moment: I got married.

Well — not technically married, but I was the bride in a play wedding at my preschool. The teacher asked for volunteers and, to everyone’s surprise, I raised my hand. A few weeks later, I walked down the aisle before parents in my white poofy dress with a confidence that I carried to middle school theater productions, where I acted, danced, and sang for audiences. I loved escaping my own skin and becoming a different person. Although I established an extroverted voice while performing, I remained somewhat silent off stage–an introvert in real life.

Like the Cinderella I once played, as I got older, I left my previous world behind. I discovered I was no longer sheltered, especially when it came to gender. On this particular  afternoon, it was so deep into the wintertime that it was already pitch black when I left school at 5 PM after choir rehearsal. I rushed a couple of avenues east to volleyball practice for my out-of-school travel team. There, my coach’s mood matched the weather. He screamed at us to continue a drill as the air burned our lungs and our movements became slow motion. My friend spiked the volleyball over the net and Coach screamed, “You hit like a girl!” 

I wanted to scream too. Yet feeling too meek to stand up to his authority, I quietly retook my position at the net. Not a year later, at Thanksgiving dinner, my older brother brought up his desire to join a fraternity. My older cousin commented with disdain about how his college’s fraternity was shut down due to a multitude of sexual assault cases. “It is so unfair,” he complained. I almost choked on my turkey, frozen in my chair and stuck between my outraged thoughts and his seniority. I kept quiet.

At that point, I had been going to the same all-girls school for eleven years. Shielded from gender-based discrimination, I grew up knowing women as strong-willed and intellectual individuals. As I became exposed to the reality of gender inequality, I joined my school’s feminism club, Women in Our World, and was elected co-president a year later. Although I had remained silent when witnessing my coach’s stereotyping and my cousin’s inability to understand the severity of sexual assaults on college campuses, I used the club as a platform  to raise my voice on gender issues. I knew to utilize this voice when a schoolwide email announced administrators would be measuring our skirt lengths with tape measures. Bewildered, I stepped back and considered the situation — I hated the idea of being reduced to a number of inches.

I organized a schoolwide lunch discussion to hear opinions on our dress code. I sat at the front of a new stage. Now, no longer quieted by authority, I used the confidence I had built from  performing to enable my voice to address authentic issues. In doing so, I created a forum for others to express their thoughts, including students from the nearby boy’s school. These opinions revealed the overwhelming outrage about the school’s attempt to control the length of our skirts. A few days later, the administration abandoned plans for measuring and I witnessed the power in abandoning silence. I saw how speaking out can produce change in the world around you, a lesson that will stay with me forever. 

 

Anna Steinbock, a 2019 graduate of the Marymount School of New York, is a freshman at Tufts.