My name is Jessica and I’m the author of this website. As the creator, I thought it might be meaningful to share my own story. I hope in doing so it provides some context for the ideas I write about.
I grew up in southeast Denver with my parents, brother, and sister. My childhood was characterized by mostly happy memories and secure relationships. I was especially close with my maternal cousins. In retrospect, they were probably some of the closest friends I had as a child. At home, I was a spunky, dorky, creative kid. I remember running around the house with my siblings play-fighting and screaming and yelling (just your average kid). I always considered myself more of a tomboy and despised anything that made me look like a girl. I felt free to be my authentic self when I was at home with just my family around.
I became a different person outside the walls and safety of my home. I was extremely reserved and quiet in social situations. There were very few people I felt comfortable talking to. According to my mom, it took me until March (7 months!) to just say “hi” to my kindergarten teacher. I I would avoid eye contact and interaction with people when I was uncomfortable. I never knew exactly what made me severely insecure around lesser known individuals, but I frequently shut down when I felt nervous. Talking was extremely difficult for me. Kids at school would say they didn’t know I could talk. (This was after they heard me talk.) This left me confused because in my mind I did talk, just when I felt comfortable. Needless to say, my social life was almost non-existent; you could count the number of people that I hung out with on one hand.
My social life was not the only thing that was impacted by my reserved nature. I developed issues in school as well. My grades sunk to Cs, Ds, and Fs. Getting an A on my report card always felt really rewarding because it was so infrequent. The thought of asking questions in class made my hands go cold and begin to sweat. There were literally maybe two or three times that I came close to asking my teachers for help. Upon hearing the voices of my classmates, I quickly turned around and walked away as my forehead became cold and my heart began to race. Even when confronted by teachers and classmates, I quite literally didn’t know what words to say.
A few of my teachers would become frustrated with me upon learning that I wouldn’t speak. I had a a couple of my teachers tell me that I wouldn’t be successful if I didn’t learn to talk. I think this comment should have hurt more, but in my head I didn’t have any problems with talking and didn’t see speaking as imperative to my progress in life. Within my family my extreme silence was just a part of my personality. It wasn’t a big deal to them, or so I thought. My mom told me I was painfully shy and reassured me that it was ok. My parents biggest frustration with me was my grades. They would tell me to work harder in school, but I really didn’t know how to change that. Study more? Check. Do my homework? Check. Turn in my homework? Half-check. People would find out I’m not as smart.
After graduating high school, I went straight to college. Frankly, I didn’t know there were other choices for high school post-grads; college was the only post-grad option my parents had talked to me about. I initially enrolled in music classes with the intent of majoring in music. After the first year, I copped out due to the required live performances. I was petrified of performing in front of a live audience.
Elementary education then gained my attention. I loved the classes I took and enjoyed the field experiences. I also admired my instructors, though I also felt the weight of their annoyance with me due to my lack of verbal participation. I remember a couple whole-class exercises during which everyone was required to speak (this still didn’t work for me). And I knew that these assignments were directed at me. Right before my senior year, I was blocked from student teaching. “We think that you are an outstanding writer and that your papers are really good,” they said. “But we just don’t think you’re ready for the student teaching.” My heart sunk and my face became warm. I felt like I was a bad student now. What was I supposed to do? “Maybe one day you’ll be ready for the student teaching,” they reassured me. But these were just nice words to make me feel better. I let my hopes of teaching drift away. What made this moment harder was that I didn’t really know what I was doing wrong. I ended up graduating with a degree in educational studies–that means an education degree without the teaching license.
Post-college life (aka adulthood) was defined by confusion and let-downs about careers. The lack of direction I had was overwhelming to me. Teaching clearly wasn’t something I was cut out for, so I needed to find something else to do. I took flight lessons for a couple years, attempting to fulfill my dream of becoming a pilot. Social interactions were still difficult for me. I remember walking slowly into the airport each time and avoiding anything that required my verbal engagement. This worked up to a point; when I went out to do a solo flight, I ended up getting lost. I found myself interested in teaching again after working at a preschool for 2.5 years. I enrolled at university to get a teaching license. To my disappointment, I had the exact same problems I’d experienced during both college and my flight training. Top it off with I’d been told I’d be a shoe in for substitute teaching in a school district, had interviewed three times for the job, and had been denied all three times. The biggest let-down was that I felt as if I was trying my hardest and didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I didn’t know of any existing issues for myself and believed that studying the content from a text book.
It was in January of 2020 that I remember feeling that I’d reached rock bottom. It seemed as if there wasn’t a lot I was good at doing. Thoughts of working as a janitor picking up trash had crossed my mind recently. It wasn’t that hard and it was something I was capable of doing. At this point, I was working as a substitute teacher (the irony isn’t lost on me). I had recently been taking assignments with in special education departments at local schools. One February day (Valentine’s Day in fact), I was covering a middle school remedial math class. It was the last class of the day, and the boys arrived first. They told me of their female classmate whom they said didn’t talk at all. This reminded me of hearing kids say exactly this about me when I was in school. I did indeed learn that the 6th grade girl really couldn’t talk–the most she could do was gape. A teacher in the same wing told me the girl has Selective Mutism.
I hadn’t heard about Selective Mutism, but from the term “mutism” it almost sounded like a condition I may have dealt with. I just assumed that it was part of the autism spectrum disorder initially. You see, I’d also been thinking that I might have autism at this point given my inability to interact with people. I researched the term “selective mutism” as soon as I got home and learned it’s a severe anxiety disorder. Children with the disorder are unable to speak in certain situations. I pulled up several articles from psychology websites and watched YouTube videos about it. More than 90% of the information I learned is what I experienced as a kid! It seriously felt like a case study had been done on my life. A huge weight suddenly fell off my shoulders that week. I was confident I had the answer as to why I had struggled so much in life. I felt as if I had answers.
Learning about Selective Mutism has changed my perspective of myself. I never knew that I dealt with a mental illness because it wasn’t something talked about in my house. I saw things through my own eyes. But my experiences of failing time and time again combined with the rejection and isolation I felt painted its own picture for me. I believed that I wasn’t as smart as the people around me and that I was an undesirable person to be around. I blamed myself for my past mistakes and doubted my own abilities. Learning that I grew up with a disorder has made it easier to accept my past mistakes and relearn that I am capable of a lot. I’ve also realized that there was a lot that other people didn’t understand about my condition and that I was held more accountable for things that were out of my control.
Starting this blog, I see it as an opportunity to share with both kids and adults alternative strategies for dealing with kids who have learning issues. I’m hoping that this information that I share helps. There’s a lot that I wish people had known about me as a kid, and there are many things I was penalized for when I didn’t possess the skillset. As a result of this, my self-esteem hit rock bottom and I began to lose faith in myself. I want to help other people figure out how to help their struggling children. And I want to help kids themselves figure out what they themselves need. I want to help people support their kids in ways that I wish had been available for me. Because at the end of the day, I believe every child has hidden potentials. Some just need extra support to discover their unique talents.