"I open my mouth to speak, and nothing but empty air falls out, no words. I know what I want to say. My lips form them but nothing hangs between us but silence and my cloudy breath in the air. I can't even make a sound." Charlotte has selective mutism, only able to talk freely with her mother since her father's death on 9/11 when she was five. Now in college, she struggles to find her own independence, make friends, fall in love and find her own voice.


2. Classes

Some professors are weirded out by the whole mute thing. I can see it in their faces when they call attendance, look at my name and make a funny, sour-looking face. Usually following with: 

"Is there a Charlotte Burd here? Oh, ok, honey, if you need anything just ask, or write, or..oh dear."

It hurt until I realized that they genuinely didn't know how to handle it. They'd never been faced with a mute girl before in their classes. I suppose I'm the first to cross their threshold.

Some don't pay any attention to it and just breeze over it.

"Charlotte Burd? Ok? Ok."

 Those are my favorite professors, and thankfully most of them. They act like it's no big deal because it's really not. I show up, I do my homework, I try to participate by scrawling an answer down as fast as I can as soon as they ask it to the group. Most of the time, I'm the only one who participates.

But most do avoid asking me any outright questions. It takes too much time for me to write, and my hand cramps up because between the furious note-taking and the chalkboard scrawling I just can't do it all. More than once I end up between lectures with chalk dust on my nose.

And as for my classmates, well, they just outright avoid me.

And it hurts.

Sometimes they start a conversation not knowing.

"Hi, how are you! My name is Mary, you know, I come from a small town in Wisconsin, but enough about me! I've seen you around, what's up?"

I'm Charlotte. I live just down the street.

"Ooh what's wrong with your voice? Do you have laryngitis? I once had laryngitis-" I furiously scrawl, the chalk squealing against the board while she speaks, "and it really sucked, what's that?"

I'm mute.

"Oh, oh my god. Like because of an accident, or you were born without a voice box or something?"

No, the doctors say it's tied to my social anxiety mostly.

"Oh. Well, that sucks." Cue awkward pause. "I guess I'll see you around then..."

And then that person avoids me, and when I make eye contact, they look away or whisper something mollified to their friends and my cheeks burn bright red.

But whenever Mom asks about school, I say the same thing.

"It's going good. I made some new friends today. My professors really like me."

And she says,

"Good. Were you able to speak?"

I always stop and think for a moment when she asks that. If no words have been said, have I spoken? Have I communicated? Can I communicate without words? And the answer is yes, I can. I can use my chalkboard. I can nod my head or shake it or slouch or communicate a million things through body language alone. It may take more work, it may seem stupid and over-reaching, but just because sound won't travel from my mouth doesn't mean I can't speak.

But that's not what she's asking. She's asking if I could open my mouth and force more than just a breath to come out. She's asking if in front of eighty-two people in the lecture hall, I formed those words with my lips and spoke them aloud for all to hear.


And that ends it there. We eat most of our meal in silence. I study, then go to bed because I have a nine-o-clock class. 

But on Thursday it changes.

I'm walking to class as usual with my headphones in, an excuse not to speak, when someone holds the door open for me. I look up. It's a kid in my Economy 101 class.

"Hey," he says, breathlessly, nose red from the cold.

I open my mouth, let out some air, close my mouth, smile and nod a greeting and a thanks.

Can you use sign language? He signs quickly like an expert, saying the words aloud as he signs them.

Yes, I sign.

My little brother is deaf. So I learned it with him.

I smile at him, bursting to the brim with joy. He learned sign language to communicate with his little brother? Relief sweeps over me. He doesn't think I'm a freak or someone to be pitied. He understands, at least a little bit, what it must be like for me.

He can hear me.

I open my mouth, close my mouth and hug him.

"Woah, ok. Was not expecting this," he laughs jokingly. I pull away.

You're the first person to talk with me without getting weirded out by the whole mute thing, I scribble down, because I feel like using English right now describes my feelings better. I'm just happy. Happy that he wants to listen, wants to talk for real.

"Here, let's go into the classroom and talk some more, you've got your backpack on and I'm carrying around this trombone for marching band practice." I nod, gratefully.

That day, before class, we talk. He tells me about his girlfriend who goes to Columbia and how she's brilliant, his mother and father who are both doctors and his little brother who's doing just fine. I tell him about homeschooling and my mom and her rules, and he introduces me to some of our other classmates, and they ask me to grab dinner with them. But I need to go back by five, and so I decline.

"That's too bad," says Kary. She models, but is also a business major, and her girlfriend is a literature major. "Maybe you can grab coffee with us together some time."

I smile.

I would like that, I write.

"So would we!" says CJ. He smells like weed, but he says he studies hard, and I believe him because his test scores prove it.

That night, when I go home, and Mom asks how my day went, I smile.

"It was good." Somehow, I feel like things are changing, even just a little bit.

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