I am 8 years old. A chunky girl with a round face and curly black hair. We are in the back seat of my friend’s father’s car, with several other little girls, coming home from a birthday party. Irwin is driving. I have never met him before.
We are excited, sharing our goody bags. I am babbling about something important to third grade girls.
Irwin turns around at the stop light and glares over the seat, unrestrained in a time before seat belts. “Do you EVER shut up?” We all go quiet and look at each other. He points a strong, manicured finger at me. “YOU,” he says. I cry without making a sound.
I remain a friend of his daughter for many years after: prom, weddings, babies, bar mitzvahs. I never speak in front of him again.
I am nine. I am in the kitchen at a family event with a boy relative, a few years older than me. I am fat. My mother has cut my bangs very short across my forehead and my face is round like a bowling ball. I am wearing ugly pink pants with a stretchy waistband from the “Chubbies” department. We are arguing about something that I can’t recall but seemed important at the time. “NO,” I say emphatically. “I won’t.” “Yes. You. Will,” he says and backs me into a corner. I try to push him away. He sticks his hand down my pink pants. “Is this what you want? You’re asking for it, aren’t you? I’ll show you who’s boss!” I yell for help. Then cry. He backs off. I run to tell my mother. She says, “I will take care of it. Don’t say anything to anyone.” I never hear about it again. Years later, when confronted, he says it never happened. But I know it most certainly did.
I am in eighth grade, maybe thirteen. I am sent to the office for talking. The principal hands me a pencil and some paper, puts me in the conference room. “Write an essay about the fact that you talk too much.” I sit for a long time without writing anything and then I begin: “Since the beginning of time, man has felt the need to communicate… “ I write many pages about the history of conversation: cavemen, explorers, wet nurses and the human need for self-expression. I hand it in. He reads it and tells me he is sending it home to my parents. My father laughs. He tells me not to be such a wiseass, to behave in school. “Just sit in your seat and shut up.”
I am in my first job. I volunteer a suggestion to expedite processing of reordered parts. “Thank you but, we’ve got it covered,” my boss says. Sit down and shut up.
I am at a business conference and I ask a question about how to best negotiate a difference of opinion on company policy. A spirited discussion ensues. The next day I am called into the boss’s office. “You’re fired,” he says. “How dare you bring that up in public?” Sit down and shut up.
I am sixty years old. I publish an essay about how to be a good mother-in-law. I write about how difficult it was for my mother-in-law and I to find common ground, and yet, in the final months – during her battle with brain cancer and my care of her – we found the love that had been missing. Family members read it online. A relative becomes enraged that I would hang our dirty laundry out to dry in cyberspace. They totally miss the love, the joy of resolution, of finding each other at the end. Their outrage at my story – my story - is so loud, so powerful and so hurtful, I sit down and shut up for a very long time.
I do not write again for almost 2 years. I am angry that all previous good deeds have vanished in the shadow of one paragraph. I am crushed that these few words have tipped the balance of the scales, have weighed heavily against a lifetime of trying to earn their approval. I feel deeply misunderstood, frustrated and impotent to explain. I am angry and hurt by their message: Sit down and shut up. And I am angry at myself that I did.
Last year, over five million women took to the streets worldwide. They would not be silenced. They stood up and spoke loud. And now they stand again. Me Too, they say. Me too, I repeat. I will not sit down and shut up.
They make me proud. They make me brave. They empower me and I am once again writing.
So no. NO. The consequences are dire. I will not sit down, stand down, or shut up.
I will stand up and speak out.
So hear this: I am talking to you. YOU sit down and shut up. And listen for a change.