Things had started off so well. I arrived in third grade with my pencils sharpened, my notebook waiting to be filled. I loved school: the dusty chalk, those tidy Scantron test bubbles, the chance to show what I knew.

Maybe that's why, as I went to my seat after yet another trip to the blackboard, a girl I'll call Connie led a chanting chorus: "E student! E student!" At our school, "E" stood for excellent. To them I was a goody-goody—trying too hard, doing too well. Heat flooded my face. I avoided Connie's gaze. She was like a bulldog, her body squat, her face pinched into a scowl. Soon she was mocking my Afro, my glasses, my height.

One day the bell rang at the end of class. Outside, dandelions dotted the lawn. I still remember how blue the sky was.

I took a shove to my back and fell; Connie's weight on me made me gasp. I tasted grass and dirt. I couldn't see. As I groped for my glasses, I heard a crowd laughing.

After that, when my teacher called for volunteers to go to the blackboard, I lowered my head. I dreaded speaking, afraid I'd attract Connie's attention. You're not good enough, I thought. Why else would Connie have chosen me as her target?

She was like an echo through my life. For years I watched my sassy, self-possessed friends with envy. I became fascinated by news reporters—I mimicked ABC anchor Carole Simpson's authoritative voice and adored CBS's Charles Kuralt with his folksy baritone. I wanted their confidence.

But well into adulthood, in meetings and at dinners with friends, I kept mum—sitting frozen, unsure of when, if at all, to jump in. At a certain point, recovering my voice—the full, vibrant, throaty essence of it—became my priority.

It started as a game: Be the first one to speak in a meeting, or offer an unpopular viewpoint in chats with friends. Sometimes Connie won out, and I went mute. But more and more, I said what I had to say. Once, at an open mic in front of a finger-snapping crowd, I recited a spoken-word piece I'd written. Then I sang karaoke at a party. The more I used my voice, the better it felt and the easier it got.

About 20 years ago, I went to my hometown to visit a relative in the hospital, and the receptionist greeted me kindly. I'll never know if my expression betrayed my horror—probably not, because Connie kept right on smiling. All those years later, she didn't remember me.

I'd often wondered what I'd do if I ever saw her again: curse at her, tell her she screwed up my life? I did none of those things. I didn't even tell Connie who I was. Instead, I smiled back. I had plenty to be happy about. Soon I'd drive home to Wisconsin and take my place at the anchor's desk or in the field, just like I did every night, to report on the news, my face and voice broadcast into thousands of homes every day.


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