Sunday, April 18, 2010

Reflections on the Day of Silence

On Friday, I participated in and helped organize the National Day of Silence for LGBT individuals and their allies at my school. For nine hours, from 6am until 3pm, I said exactly two words--"advanced" and "lovely." I said the former when I had tried unsuccessfully to get a colleague to press the indicated button on a settings dialog. The latter escaped my lips in reaction to a report of a student making a poor choice in regard to the use of the dry erase board we had given him to facilitate his silent participation in class. Other than that one incident, however, the 34 students and teachers at my school who participated did so seriously, thoughtfully, and successfully.

I found remaining silent for nine hours a challenge, especially when providing technical support, but it was also liberating. Writing on the dry-erase board, I was able to choose my words more carefully and it made me more thoughtful about the conversations in which I engaged. It allowed me to try my hand at other ways of self-expression. When I had to explain the photography concepts of aperture and depth-of-field to my yearbook students, I had to rely on gesture, my limited skills as an illustrator, and the photos produced by my camera to explain what I would have normally expressed through mostly verbal cues. It made me more aware of learners whose strengths are not auditory/linguistic and to stretch my own learning comfort zone into other areas. Overall, it made me less wordy.

Socially, it was actually quite pleasant to sit in silence during encounters with others. To highlight the day, I set up a silent lunch table in the center of the cafeteria, where teachers and students, even those not participating for the full day, could dine together without speaking. I became aware of the tendency we have, with all but our closest friends and family, to fill every gap with words--silence is awkward. Sitting at that table with my co-workers, though, I was struck by how it didn't feel awkward at all. One of my colleagues remarked later that, by focusing on her meal, she actually ate less and was more aware of the point at which she felt full. My experience at the lunch table made me appreciate the value of mindful eating. I understand why some monastic orders take a vow of silence. I wonder if we might be able to organize the whole cafeteria as a silent space next year.

The point of the Day of Silence, of course, is not to become a better communicator or to enjoy your lunch in peace, but to highlight the silencing of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered voices in our culture and community through name-calling, bullying, and harassment. On this level, I believe we succeeded, based on the comments of the students who participated. Already, I have seen a willingness in my students involved in the school's Gay Straight Alliance to speak up when they hear intolerant or homophobic language. There were some parents who expressed that they did not agree with our efforts but otherwise our community was very supportive. I have to remember that we're never going to change someone's mind about the nature of sexual orientation but, if we can get those who do not share our views to at least treat all members of our community with respect, then that's the best possible outcome I could hope for. In the meantime, I was heartened to hear that students and teachers in the Middle School expressed an interest in joining us next year.

I am thankful for the students and teachers who participated and took the day seriously. I am also thankful for the chance to get out of the way of my own words for a while. It's something I think I would like to try more often.

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