By Sue Li, 17, Culver City HS
Print This Post

Photo by Managing Editor Libby Hartigan

For the first 15 minutes of AP Government each day, the students talk to pass the time while my teacher takes roll. Paul remarks about how much of nothing we do. I ask Ian how the literary club is doing. Like everyone else this particular week, he has a cold. He answers me with a cough, which is followed by a chorus of hacking and nose trumpeting.

"Why is everyone sick?" I ask out loud.

"Sue, why are you so loud?" my teacher responds.

I hadn’t realized my voice had erupted through the chatter. The class laughed as I sank in my chair. I can’t stand it when everyone can see my faults, and I was humiliated that I had spoken so loudly. My mom is always telling me to watch the volume of my voice, but then again, who listens to moms? This time I wished I had.

And that wasn’t the only time that I’d wished I had known when to keep my mouth shut.

I once yelled, "Dude you suck!" at my friend in Subway. I stopped yelling when I realized customers were staring. Also, in a conversation about Shanghai Noon, I said, "Well, it’d be nice if Jackie Chan could learn proper English," within earshot of a group of Asianophiles—the type who drool over Japanese school girls and worship kung fu films. And when my friend from another school came to visit, she told to me to "act normal" and not so "loud and crazy." Was she referring to the times that I started laughing hysterically in a group for no reason? Or when I begin a random story, having nothing to do with the ongoing conversation?

However, being singled out by my teacher that time made me more self-conscious than all the accumulated "hints" from my friends.

So, to take a stand, I decided I wouldn’t talk at all for a week.

In addition, no AIM or e-mail, although I would let myself talk for group discussions or class presentations, if my grade was at stake, and to tutor students.

What would I really be giving up? The ability to tell so-and-so about how cute I thought her skirt was? Or how "Jack" and "Jill" are now going out? As I listened to classmates while preparing myself, I kept hearing filler—"likes," "you knows," and "ohmigods." I could give that up. Piece of cake.

Motivated, I ran the idea of writing a story about not talking by my editors at L.A. Youth, which caused an uproar of laughter.

"You, Sue? Not talk for five days? You wouldn’t last five minutes."

I was a little offended.

Undaunted, I typed out a note Sunday night and made copies for my teachers explaining why I was being extraordinarily quiet. I stuffed the pocket of my pants with a pen and a pad of Post-Its and went to sleep.

I found new ways to communicate


My mom was surprised that I was following through.

"What day are you tutoring Semisi next?" She asked in the morning.

I thought for a moment and held up two fingers.

I nodded.

Arriving at school, the first few people that I ran into didn’t even realize I wasn’t talking and they continued to gab as I walked alongside. I smiled and laughed at appropriate pauses. But finally, people would look at me strangely and ask, "What are you, mute?"

I nodded.

I handed out my note to most of my friends. I had wanted to lay low, but now that I couldn’t talk, it seemed that more and more people wanted to talk to me.

"Really, Sue? You’re not going to talk at all? I’ll get you to talk …"

My friends made fun of me because they knew I couldn’t defend myself.

"Ha! This is awesome. I can say anything I want and you have to listen to me. So about that pus-filled blister on my big toe …"

"Cool, I’m going to be Sue’s voice today." (Begins talking in a high-pitched voice that sounds nothing like me.)

"Will you marry me? I’ll take your silence as a yes."

And so on.

I fumbled in third period while doodling. Sketching my friend, who was oblivious to me drawing him, I was so into my artwork that when he turned around to face me, I cried out, "You moved!" I immediately spun around and covered my mouth with my hand. Oh crap, I thought, that didn’t just happen. Luckily, no one heard me.

For the rest of the day, I flailed my arms, moved my fingers or signed letters with my hands to make myself understood. I poked, laughed, frowned and rolled my eyes. I bowed in thanks. I hugged people to say "hi." There was much I could say, I quickly discovered, without saying anything at all.

Silence wasn’t golden

My success on Monday misled me into thinking this no talking stuff would be easy.

"She speaks!" They gasped in history, when I answered my teacher’s question. Unfortunately, I couldn’t explain that I was allowed to reply.

Barely making it on time for English that afternoon, I announced, "Don’t mark me tardy, I’m here!" As I scuttled to my desk with my head down in embarrassment, my desk partner nudged me.

"You little cheater."

By today, I realized my challenge was no longer personal. It seemed that every time I spoke, whether intentionally or not, all the students who had heard about the challenge shared my disappointment. Each time I failed, I felt even more guilty.

Even when I had to tutor two students that night (for a total of three hours of speaking), I wished that I could explain fractions and volcanoes nonverbally. Talking felt like eating a doughnut on a diet—and it didn’t even taste good enough to be worth it.


By Wednesday, word had spread. One of the few not to know was my 11th grade history teacher, who had a request.

"Sue, could you come in my room some time today and sign a waiver for the Brown recommendation?" he asked.

I smiled and nodded.

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

Uhh. I thought. I had always been slightly intimidated by teachers, but now, I froze, literally at a loss for words. Fortunately, wherever I went, I always had at least one "spokesperson" who could explain why I couldn’t talk. My friend Allison told my teacher that I was going silent for an L.A. Youth story.

"I want a copy of that article when you’re done," he said.

At lunch, listening to my friends discuss plans for the weekend, I was screaming, "Invite me!" in my head. (I later invited myself.) I missed being able to chime in, to just be able to say how gross school food is, even though no one really cared about my views on the cafeteria’s fries. Despite how stupid I sound sometimes, it still would have been nice just to make a sound.

But I had learned many techniques to express myself. I traced an invisible rectangle in the air with my finger and took out an imaginary book—I need to go to my locker; I pinched two fingers together, twisted my wrist, and pointed to a cabinet—do you have the keys?

My life became a game of charades.

Except with my mother, who is the worst charades player ever. While she was driving me to school, I had to gesture to tell her when I needed to be picked up, because I couldn’t show her the note I had written and distract her.

I tapped the digits on the clock radio "You want music?" she asked. "I don’t like your music, and you always turn off my classical music."

I sighed and commenced tapping.

"Clock?" Yes! I held up six fingers, waited a moment and then made three fingers with my left hand and then curled the fingers on my right hand into the shape of an "O." Come on, I thought. Six … 30.

"Six?" my mom guessed. Yes! I nodded vigorously.

"Three?" No! I shook my head side to side and held up six fingers again.

"Six minutes?" "Thirteen?" "Oh, I know. 90 minutes!"

The only system that worked with my mother was over the phone. I would dial her number, wait for her to pick up, and then cough. Somehow, she couldn’t manage to decipher 6:30, but cough, cough, she understood as "pick me up now."

I wanted to scream


Rarely do my friends and I debate the Iraq War or discuss city council meetings, but I wanted to groan about homework or gossip about relationships. I missed the rapid-fire back and forth interactions.

It also hurt that a few people I considered close friends hadn’t noticed I wasn’t talking. Because I couldn’t talk, according to my friend Paul, I did not contribute to the friendship and he had every right to ignore me.

By Thursday, after bottling up four days worth of thoughts, I felt like I hadn’t had an intellectual conversation in four years. As a result, I talked to myself inside my head before I fell asleep; I carried around a notebook at school to jot down random bits of inspiration or comments that popped into my brain. When I came home in the afternoon, I began typing in Microsoft Word to release the accumulated thoughts and regain my sanity.

I wanted to scream out to the world what I was trying to say; I ended up just stomping around a lot.


I woke up. Just one more day, I thought.

Initially, I had wanted to finish strong and shout out my first words at the top of my lungs Saturday morning. Instead, at Target after school, I needed a price check from the cashier. With people in a growing line tapping their feet and glowering at their watches behind me, I decided to just ask.

After all, I didn’t talk for five whole school days. Later, as I ordered a Subway sandwich, I realized how difficult it would have been to choose my Italian bread, turkey, tomatoes, lettuce, pickles and olives without talking.

The first few hours, I had to adjust to talking. Whenever someone spoke to me, my initial response was to do nothing, even ignore him or her at times.

Those that followed along with me the previous week were as excited as I was come Monday morning. "She can talk!" gasped some and, "I’ve missed your lovely voice," another said, with only a smidgen of sarcasm.  

Not talking for a week taught me to let my thoughts stew for a bit before I let them out of my head. In the kitchen, looking for a pair of scissors, I wanted to ask my mom where they were, but instead of immediately yelling across the room, I experienced a delayed reaction. I actually found the scissors a few seconds later.

Now I’m OK with being a talker

But this filter faded after a few days, and I found myself back to my old overly-eager-to-share self. Walking to my locker, I thought out loud to myself, "Ugh, I’m never going to get into college."

"Oh, shut up, Sue," my friend quickly responded.

In homeroom, when everyone was listening to the bulletin, I whispered to my desk partner about the struggles of finding parking in the morning. I’m pretty sure he didn’t care.

Although I am glad I challenged myself with this experiment, I have accepted the fact that I like to talk and have to speak my mind, in the same way that you can’t stop a cat from meowing. Looking back, I’ve learned that even though it’s OK to talk, timing is everything.

My friends still ask me if I am all right if more than 20 minutes go by and they haven’t heard me talk, and that’s fine. Instead of being insulted that they think I’m such a talkative person, I am glad they care enough to notice when I’m not being my usual self.

I have learned to appreciate myself for both my good and bad traits. Perfectly trained in holding a conversation, I’d rather be "Sue, the gabber" than "Sue, forgotten."