I remember, in the first few weeks of secondary school sitting on the stairs crying at the idea that I had to keep doing this secondary school thing for the next 7 years. I said something like “secondary school is school with all the fun zapped out of it”. It was all grades, grades, grades from the very start. And every day was almost exactly the same; especially with the volume of core subject lessons, there are only so many combinations of Maths, Science and English!
I had become very much an observer from my primary school experience having not had many friends. I would go through my day barely saying a word, just watching the events unfold in front of me. For weeks and weeks I sat on my own at lunch time on a wall at the edge of the quad, wishing I had someone to talk to. But, simultaneously, I felt unable to do anything. I didn’t know how to initiate conversation or feel able to approach anyone. I felt, and have felt many times over, like an outsider looking in; like I was watching the world from the other side of a glass wall where I could see everything but not quite reach out and touch it. And the glass muffled my sound. Because when I did speak, I was often told I mumbled or to ‘speak up’. Sometimes repeating it didn’t even make a difference. Often I’d give up and say ‘nevermind’ or stop trying to speak entirely, thinking “what’s the point if they can’t hear me?”. Sometimes being told to ‘speak up’ can still feel like a punch in the gut.
I’ve always found anxious thoughts challenging in a fast-paced small talk situation and I remember a time when simply saying ‘hi’ back to someone was attached to a million doubts and questions. “Why are they talking to me?” I would think, “should I reply?”. The answer was always yes, it’s standard convention. “Do I say hi or hey or hello?” and by the time I had resolved them, the moment had passed and I was considered ‘rude’ for not replying. I felt they never gave me the time to respond and I would get annoyed at myself for being ‘too slow’.
Whilst everyone in primary school knew and would describe me as quiet, secondary school kids took to rudely asking me over and over and over again: “Why don’t you speak?”, “Can you speak?”, “Can you say ‘hello’”? “Are you mute or something?”. This was pretty much every single day without fail and I resented it.
I felt they talked down to me like a parent encouraging a child to say its first word or like a dog they were commanding to perform a trick. It felt patronising and dehumanising; like I was seen as somehow lesser simply for being quiet. Simultaneously, I felt used and exploited as a source of entertainment for the amusement of others. I felt like a laughing stock, cringey, a joke. It didn’t matter where I was, whether I was in class, walking through the corridor or on the school bus, people were always doing it. It felt inescapable and like all I could do was to not engage. I’d think ‘If this is a game to you, then I’m not playing’ and completely blank whoever was talking to me. This meant, beyond my own friendship group, I wasn’t really engaging and connecting with anyone. Even then, I felt like a spare part and on the edge of our extended friendship group. I didn’t feel like a valuable member or like I was important to anyone. Any time I talked about my feelings I was shut down and I was often left out of plans. I felt rejected.
The only times I did engage with some people on my bus, they mocked my responses. When I told them that I don’t speak to people because of the way they talked to me, they said I clearly thought I was better than everyone else. They acted as if wanting to be respected and talked to like a person was too much to ask for. And maybe some part of me thought it was true, that I was a second rate citizen and undeserving of respect because I felt like a socially inept, dysfunctional human.
My feelings of dysfunction and self contempt only increased when the rumours followed by bullying began. They acted like I was disgusting, ducking away from me in the corridors and handing out my books by holding only the corner and throwing them around like they were contaminated with a disease. It got to the point that almost every day, both people I knew and didn’t, were yelling insults at me. And nobody questioned it. Because school feels like your entire world as a teenager, it felt like everyone hated or was disgusted by me. And when so many people are saying this, you start to question whether it’s true. I felt like my friends only hung out with me because they pitied me, after all they ditched me at the first opportunity. I didn’t feel like I was interesting or good enough at social interaction to be liked.
During this time, my only valuable connections were formed online. There I could find others to bond over music with, feel accepted and get emotional support. There my thoughts and feelings were recognised and I found it easier to communicate over messages. In real life, I’d fear my voice failing me and I’d mumble. But this was not an issue online; I could take time to consider what I wanted to say and the way I wanted to say it.
At my second secondary school, I had an overall better experience. I was never bullied and my quietude was only questioned on occasion (often in confusion following me delivering a drama monologue). But I did feel more isolated, on the edge and almost invisible at times. Sometimes I felt like maybe it was better before because at least they noticed me, even if it wasn’t in a good way. Here I felt like I could fade away and no one would notice. It wasn’t until Year 11 I finally had someone to hang out with every break time.
Sometimes I think about how my peers could have acted differently and how this might have impacted my experience. For instance, if my peers hadn’t held such negative perceptions around ‘being quiet’ thinking it’s weird or that quiet people are hiding something messed up, maybe they’d have been more accepting of me and questioned the rumour. And if I’d been talked to with respect, maybe I’d have felt able to talk to them and explain my feeling rather than resigning myself to silence around them. If the people around me had given me the time and space I needed, like I had online, to communicate, maybe I’d have found it easier to reply to people, engage in conversations and form connections. After all, speaking online first is how I eventually made my year 11 friend. Equally, if the people around me hadn’t assumed that because I was quiet, I didn’t want to engage, maybe I would have found it easier to connect with people. Even if someone had just taken the time to make me feel included in our friendship group and been willing to validate my feelings, then maybe I’d have felt less alone and given less weight to the insults. Peer relationships are important to development and there is not enough done to help give quieter people the chance to form connections with peers. This is partly what has led me to exploring quieter people’s secondary school experiences. I am interested to see how peer relationships played a role in other quieteers experiences of school and to explore what can be done to give quiet students the best opportunities to connect and flourish. (If you want to help with my research you can share your own school story with me here).
Something I will never forget is the kindness of the few: the tutor who listened to me and fought for someone to take action against the bullying; the senior member of staff who actually resolved the issue; the friend who noticed if I was withdrawn and helped me to feel seen; the friend who listened to me and helped me through some of my darkest times; and the teacher that was always available to listen and saw my quietude as something to be celebrated, not berated. I’m also grateful for the people I have befriended and connected with over the years, and for anyone I am still in contact with whether we have recently connected, reconnected or been in touch on and off for a while. And I’m grateful for getting to connect with Hayley, Stacie and Lucy, and the wider Quiet Connections community. To be in such a warm place that celebrates us for who we are is amazing, and something I only wish I had when I was at school.