I don’t notice straight away that the woman who walks into the classroom is a supply teacher because I’m absorbed in writing a poem, each word carefully considered to truly reflect my thoughts before getting inked onto the page to join its brothers and sisters. Therefore, it is only when she speaks, rather ineffectually telling the class to quieten down, that I jerk out of my world and look at her in surprise. My friends are still gossiping, swapping stories they’ve heard, and I smile along with them the best I can, but inside there’s already a raw jittery feeling nagging at me. Does she know? Does she know about me? About what I can and cannot do, and the one thing that she absolutely must not expect me to do? She’s a supply teacher, so she probably doesn’t, and so it is with shaking hands that I take my maths book and pencilcase out of my bag. The supply teacher raises her voice, trying to get some order in the classroom, and I agonise over the rowdiness of my friends, silently willing them to be quiet, not wanting them to draw the supply teacher’s attention. They finally quieten down, much to my relief, and she begins the lesson. She begins with some inane preamble, introducing herself as Miss Hartigan, and I surreptitiously add another line to my poem. “Now, does everyone have their maths homework?” she trills. The class reply the affirmative in a synchronised monotone. “Then let’s go through it together,” she says enthusiastically. “Who knows the answer to question one?” No one puts their hand up, seemingly too bored of maths already. “If no one volunteers I’m going to have to start picking on people!” she threatens shrilly. And suddenly I’m willing everyone in the class, anyone, to put their hand up and tell the damn supply teacher what twelve squared is. Still no one volunteers and she begins walking, or rather prowling, around the classroom in search of someone with a spark of mathematical knowledge in their eye. I sit frozen in my chair, as still as a statue, eyes firmly looking down, wishing with all my might that she doesn’t notice me. She walks towards my table and I suddenly realise that my poem is out so I sweep it under my pencilcase. She spots the movement and turns her eyes towards me. “You can start us off!” she says brightly, looking at me and smiling. “What is twelve multiplied by twelve?” I sit frozen in my chair, arm still outstretched on my poem, each rapid heartbeat pumping more and more anxiety through my body.
I pull my maths book towards me with sweating, trembling hands, and almost forget to breathe. I open my maths book slowly, making a big deal of slowly turning the pages, fumbling and almost dropping the book. I’m trying to put as much time as possible between the present and the time when she will expect me to answer that simple maths question. I’m hoping against hope that she’ll get bored with me and ask someone else instead. She doesn’t get bored. Still, she waits. “What is twelve times twelve?” she repeats. I look up at her imploringly, trying to put across the message that I desperately want to put into words: Don’t ask me to speak. But she misinterprets my desperate look as being mathematical incompetency and says patiently, “Take as much time as you need.” Oh God, she thinks I’m stupid, I think, and roll my eyes. She sees the action and a temper immediately flares up out of nowhere. “I will not tolerate rudeness in my class! At least try to answer the question!” she snaps. One hundred and forty four, I shout in my head. 144, 144, 144. It beats like a drum in my mind. I know exactly what I want to say, but there’s an enormous pressure keeping it inside. One of my friends rescues me, calmly saying the digits that I’m repeating in my head, and when someone’s mobile phone goes off with a ringtone laden with expletives, the supply teacher storms over in an attempt to restore some kind of order, and I am soon forgotten about. All seems well for the rest of the lesson, she gets us to do our own work, and I think I’m off the hook by the time the lesson ends, but as we’re packing away she tells me to stay behind. My best friend Katie hears and quickly walks towards me. “I’ll tell her, if you want me to?” she offers, and I nod appreciatively and pack away the rest of my things, fingers lingering on my poem. I look up when Katie returns. “She still wants you to stay behind.” she mutters. I swallow with fear and Katie knows what I’m feeling because she hugs me quickly before leaving the room. Soon it’s just me and Miss Hartigan and a long silence. She casually leans on a table as she surveys me and I can feel the colour creeping into my cheeks as I stand stock still. “Your friend Katie tells me that you don’t speak due a condition called Selective Mutism.” Miss Hartigan says. I feel a rush of relief that she knows. “What’s that then? Why do you choose not to speak?”
It’s a rhetorical question and she starts packing away her own things. I freeze when I realise what she’s said, then a hot, fierce anger courses through me. It’s not a choice, I scream in my head. But how can I explain to her just how paralysing this fear of speaking in certain situations is, without words. Even with words it can be hard to understand. Because I can speak in a limited number of situations, to a limited number of people, and when I am alone. I can speak at home for example; at home I am fine, I have a voice, I am free. But my anger draws my thoughts back to the present, to this classroom empty but for this ignorant supply teacher whom I may never see again, and I have never wanted to speak more in my life, to put her right and say five short words: this is not a choice. I gather up my courage, I am determined to correct her. I figure that if I am never to see her again then it doesn’t matter if she hears me speak, right now, at the end. I gather the words inside. The words are strong and bold and confident. ‘This is not a choice.’ But my heart is hammering far too hard inside my chest, it feels like it’s taking up all the room and pushing the words deeper down. So I take a deep breath to try to steady my nerves and my racing heart, but this just makes my heart beat faster. I notice that my hands are clammy and my lips are dry, so I dry to hands and wet my lips. I take in a deep breath and put my tongue to the front of my mouth in preparation for the -th sound but my lips remain tightly sealed. I mentally urge myself to push the sound over my lips and force the words out, but I can’t. My body is paralysed with fear and at that moment it would have been as easy for me to move the moon as it would have been to utter a single sound. Miss Hartigan seems disappointed as she leaves the room, but nowhere near as disappointed as I, as I stand alone in the silent room, defeated by a Mutism that buries my words with fear. I grip my poem tightly in my hand as I finally manage to say, to the empty room, five too late words. “This is not a choice.”