Every Saturday starts the same. My alarm goes off at 5:30 in the morning, slicing through a woozy, early morning haze. My body doesn’t want to move; it is dead set on staying in bed.
I wake up angry, apprehensive of what the day brings. While I lay in my cocoon of blankets, I can kid myself a little. Tell myself, this Saturday will be the one where everything goes smoothly. No snarky comments, no lingering glances.
I draw my fingers across the array of grays, blacks, whites and blues that hang solemnly in my closet. Each item poses a different challenge. Skirts that fit a little too well around back, pants that float around my calves. Some free me to run, some barely let me walk. I hear, you don’t ‘look the part’, echoes from the recesses of my subconscious. I don’t want to wear the pants I finally pick — they’re stiff, more restrictive than I’d like. But the alternative is a skirt that draws looks from my judges and opponents that linger on my body that I’d rather not see. I choose safety over comfort.
Somehow, I haul myself out of my thoughts and into the day. I feel myself burning a deep, burnt orange anger at myself in my bathroom mirror. It burns in my peripheral vision, a searing pain that smarts more with each blink into a mirror that reminds me of my supposed womanly shortcomings.
I burn a little darker. The edges close in a bit more.
I arrive to the bus stop late, where I sit next to the boy I will debate with for the day. He is the third partner I’ve had in as many weeks – I am exhausted. I wrote both cases, consolidated all the blocks, made him a speech document and pre-flows. As I doze off besides him on the plastic leather school bus seats beside him, my head falls to his shoulder. He grunts in annoyance, and shoves my head off of him.
“Why are you falling asleep?” he asks me, his frustration evident in his squinting eyes.
He sweeps me up and down, takes in the bags underneath my bloodshot eyes, my disheveled bed-head hair. “If you’re tired, that’s not my problem.”
I don’t protest. This is a concession on my part. If this was a round, he’d win, I think to myself.
I let myself lose. For now.
When I walk into rounds, judges eyes follow my body just a little too closely, a little too intent as I bend over to pick up my bag. They must see a different body than I do, or are they staring because it’s exactly what I see? I take off my glasses so I can’t see their stares.
The debate begins.
Speeches are given at ear-splitting volume and impossible tempo. My four minutes in rebuttal and two in final focus simply don’t feel like enough, no matter how fast I go. Crossfire questions are condescending, and judges give reasons for their decisions that imply my intellectual capabilities don’t measure up to my partner’s. Opposing male-male teams smirk at my backside, and snicker when I straighten myself up, walk away just a little bit faster and in the process, stumble in my heels. My teammates ignore my analysis and brush off my opinions, ignoring my status as a more experienced, qualified and successful debater over their two weeks on junior varsity.
I want to forget the expectations pushed on me; I want to make my lips too red, let my hair dry curly, too messy to be “professional”, ignore the backside that makes all my skirts just a little too short. But every minute flaw is obvious in a space where perfection is the bare minimum.
After it’s over, I board the bus weighed down by a new set of new insecurities about my body and abilities. Rage illuminates these days. I contemplate why I put myself through an activity that seems only to bring frustration — I sacrifice sleep and sanity just to be told I will never measure up.
But I have six minutes. These minutes are beautiful, because they belong to me. As my voice reverberates uninterrupted, I define even the moments when judges gave no weight to my words, determined my worth by my body. For six minutes, my ability alone decides the true outcome. In these glorious moments I cannot be silenced, and I cannot be overlooked.
Six minutes isn’t very long, but it’s enough.
It is my turn to speak.
So I open my mouth. I speak for the woman I will be, I speak for the girl I grew out of. I speak with every ounce of anger and power that I fought for, and earned.
A lifetime of people ignoring my voice crumbles.
The sensation is fleeting, but damn — it feels good.