Sometimes not saying anything says it all

Udaya Pillalamarri
3 min readFeb 9, 2021

Every Monday evening I volunteer with Homefront for about two hours. I tutor children virtually across various grades and help them with their homework in Math, Science and English subjects. I have immense respect for the organizers of this program and the children who make a commitment to show up and put in hard work. For who would truly want to work on math at 6:30 in the evening?

Most sessions are busy with an agenda, questions seeking to be answered and peppered with light-hearted jokes. These children face various challenges in their day to day lives and as tutors we help in the best way we can. So once in a while, I find myself facing difficult sessions where they themselves are not interested or checked out due to lack of support. It becomes hard, at that point, to engage with them through the facade of a Zoom call. The barrier to connect deep and develop trust feels insurmountable.

I faced one last evening with a fifth grader who outright refused to enable his video, microphone and decided not to answer my pleas to connect for the first 20min into our call. I kept harping on the same questions — “Could you please enable your video? I can’t help you if I can’t see you” “Could you please talk with me? It’s hard for me to know if you truly understand what I’m saying” “Please, can you please let me know why you won’t speak with me? Would you like to talk with someone else instead?”

Have you experienced such a situation before? When it feels as if your words are not being understood? Or they are met with silence and you aren’t sure what to say or do in that moment? Perhaps you talk much more than necessary and decidedly compound the problem even further?

It is a sign of hard-earned growth, having experienced much loss over recent past and years, that caused me to make the decision to stop talking. I decided to meet him with silence instead and took several steps back. I stayed quiet for few minutes and said,

“If you could do anything right now, what would that be?”

After what seemed like an eternity, he replied via the Zoom chat and said,

“Spelling”

From then on this smart fifth grader and I learnt to communicate with each other by spelling words. I had my video enabled, showed him the lentil dish I was making during our lesson and asked him several words to spell. Words that connected him and I into my world, day to day words of objects in my kitchen and those that could stretch his skills. He responded in kind by giving me the spelling over chat. That’s it — no face or voice, just intermittent chat.

I left that call with much humility and gratitude for having had the most profound interaction in a long while. I recognized the depth and value of silence. I’d taken it for granted that the only way to communicate is through spoken word. Silence is not easy to process and can absolutely make you feel uncomfortable. However whether good or bad, it’s hard to say. Sometimes not saying anything can truly shine a light — not just on the situation at hand but also on implicit assumptions you carry within. This student, I learnt later, lives in a chaotic household and wouldn’t have been able to speak easily. I let my biases take control of the situation early on and did not give him benefit of the doubt. Much to learn you have, dear Udaya.

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen, heard or even touched. They must be felt with the heart. “ — Hellen Keller

As I approach Valentine’s day, my thoughts gravitate and center around those loved ones I’ve hurt due to the inadequacy of the spoken word. Words are definitely important, being open and transparent with your thoughts even more so. However, it is equally important to take a quiet breath and make room for that extra hug, kiss or smile to feel love as well. Heartfelt actions, being present in the moment, that could convey so much more than words ever could. For now, I will say a silent prayer to them. I’ll say it with all my heart and hope that they can feel it in the way of this world.

And the next time around, perhaps I’ll take a quiet moment to read the room and speak when I truly need to.

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