I was supposed to be deaf. When my ears were first examined as an infant, the doctors told my parents there was a possibility I would lose most, if not all, of my hearing. For the next several years I would have severe ear infections, operations, and hearing tests. My hearing slowly began to improve once my tonsils were removed and my ear tubes replaced. I still have scarring and about 50% hearing loss in one ear. I often think about how those early events could have played out so differently, and how I could have lost the ability to hear, and how the entire fate of my life might have changed.
My parents divorced when I was 3. I don't remember much about it except the moment we left. It all seemed very casual at first. I remember just thinking to myself, "See you soon Dad." The split didn’t begin to affect me until I started flip flopping between my mom’s house and my dad’s house. Both of my parents are incredibly attractive and charismatic people. That being said, my father had many different lovers, and all of them had very different lives. First, there was my favorite baby sitter. Then, a wonderfully warm lady named Nadine. And finally, there was the woman (we’ll call her Toni) with her two daughters (we’ll call them Stefanie, age 2 and Missy, age 13). I was 5 at the time. Missy had somewhat of a chip on her shoulder. I was really too young to understand why, but she did not take well to having me around. I believe that there were several episodes of abusive behavior inflicted on me, but the most prominent memory I have was being locked for hours in a dark closet. I began to dread going to my Dad’s house. I felt oddly invisible, and I was afraid of Missy. When Missy was in trouble she would get spanked by Toni and that frightened me too.
I always talked a lot. When I was learning to speak, my mother said I used full sentences instead of just a word or two. I am sure that this is why I found myself being locked in closets by other children, and frequently sentenced to "the quiet room" by my preschool teacher Noni. Whatever it was, my whole life changed when my father bought the Disney channel. I would go to Toni's house, and sit in front of the TV for two days straight. No more Missy torturing me, no more feeling ignored. Now I had my singing, dancing friends from The Mickey Mouse Club, Kids Incorporated, and an endless supply of magical cartoons. It was enough to convince me that I, too, could be a singing, dancing princess. My imagination began to run wild. Regardless of where I was, I would make believe I was in another land. I would sing and dance and create detailed storylines to bring my imaginary worlds to life. I was Ariel.
I always sought attention from people. Especially adults. I was lonely. My older brother was 11 years older than me. As my mother once described with a loving grin, I was not exactly a “planned pregnancy.” And although deeply loved, I often lacked the playmates that I dreamed of. In addition, I came equipped into the world with my own particular form of neediness. I was by no means an easy child to care for. I wanted to be included in everything, and I wanted to speak every thought that crossed my blossoming mind. My mom always treated me like a best friend, which is exactly what we were—the best of friends. She entrusted me with everything and never told me lies. I drew the strength of my personal ethics and morals from both of my parents, as they always spoke to me with earnestness about life’s truths, even the hard ones. Besides my parents, I had several different friends, but I could tell I annoyed most of them with my efforts to be so desperately liked and approved. And, of course, there was the chronic talking thing: I just couldn’t quit it. I had a compulsion to express absolutely everything. I knew it was a problem, but I just had so much to say.
When I was 11, I attended Roosevelt Middle School. It was then, that I first enrolled in choir. My choir teacher looked very much like Cruella Deville. She hated my talking. I was often sent to homeroom for chatting. It may have appeared that I was disinterested, but I actually loved it. I just happened to have the attention span of a fly. I pretended to learn to read music, instead of actually learning to read music. In fact, it was a recurring theme throughout school that I was a bit of slow learner. Later tests would prove otherwise, but as a child, and as many students do, my particular kind of “predispositions” forced me to slip through almost every crack in the system. I eventually grew to believe that I was “slow”, and instead of applying myself I became lazy. In choir, I just got really good at learning all of the songs by ear.
Once a year, the middle school would put on a musical. I tried out all three years, but didn't make it the first two. My heart was broken. I wanted to show everyone the singing dancing princess that I was. Finally, as an eighth grader, I got in. I beamed when I saw my name on the list: Thank goodness! No. Wait a minute. What?! A Town’s lady?! Aja Volkman as...a Towns Lady? What? No lines? No solos? Why? Well, I guess, still, my time had not arrived.
Just when I thought I was at the bottom of that barrel, in the middle of my eighth grade year something really bizarre happened. I went from being a soprano, to a tenor. My voice dropped right along with all the boys. Suddenly I was singing the tenor parts from the soprano section. I had completely lost my high register. I was far too embarrassed to say anything to my teacher, so I just sang quietly to myself. After a few months, we went to see a doctor, because I had started losing my voice altogether. The doctor told me that I had nodules on my vocal chords. Nodules are small bumps that form from improper or over use of the vocal chords. It prevents the vocal chords from closing all the way when you speak, allowing air to pass through and causing a raspy voice. The doctor gave me two options: 1) surgery--to remove the bumps along with two months of silent recovery or, 2) silence for two months without surgery and hopefully the problem would resolve itself on its own. The second option was no guarantee, but I was willing to give it a shot.
And so the girl that couldn’t stop talking, stopped talking. I went back to school with notes for all my teachers and a pad of paper to write down my thoughts. At first it seemed doable, but soon became agonizing, as it was horribly against my nature. It didn't help that 13 year-olds happen to be some of the most superficial self-centered people on the planet. Nobody at that age is interested in being friends with a mute girl. So I got a bit more lonely. After two weeks I broke down and confessed to my mom that I just couldn’t do it. I would try again. Two weeks would pass, and again I would speak. It was heartbreaking. I thought I would never sing again, and the image of a singing, dancing princess slowly faded from my conscious mind.
By the time I reached high school I had given up singing all together. I would have to focus on other things now. I had managed to tone the talking down quite a bit, all thanks to my practice of silent bouts. My junior year, I met Raul, an exchange student that stayed with my family for 3 weeks. For a 16 year old, Raul played the guitar incredibly well. One weekend, my mom and step dad took us to the beach. It was there that Raul and I wrote a couple of songs for fun. They were nothing too impressive, and I was very insecure about my hoarse voice, but it was so magical for me.
Later that year, I discovered my dad’s junior acoustic guitar. It started to bring music back into my life. I began to sit up in my room plucking away at the strings and making up soft little acoustic songs. My voice was so raspy, that I was afraid of it. It sounded awful to my ear, but I wanted to sing so badly that I kept writing my private little songs. Writing music was so easy for me. They were little stories and tragedies that I created in the form of a poem. I would rush home after school to write, and though my guitar skills were so poor, my new love affair with these words and melodies left me entirely unfazed. I still, however, never wanted anyone to hear me. In spite of my deepening interest, I was terribly scared of embarrassing myself.
Senior year came and graduation was on its way. My beautiful talented friend, Emily Kokal, and I decided to write a song for graduation together. She would sing lead and I would back her up with the harmonies. We would both play guitar. So we did it. During the dress rehearsal my vocal was very quiet next to hers. She was a real powerhouse. The actual performance was quite a different experience. I will never forget that first moment, when I opened my mouth in front of 2000 people, and my voice came booming back at me like a tidal wave. I instantly broke a sweat and felt panic rush over my body: "Why was my mic turned up so loud?" Although looking back now, I understand that during the sound check, the house PA had not yet been turned on, meaning that only my stage volume had been on. The speakers pointing toward the audience had not been on until this moment. I tried not to flinch at the sound of my own voice. I finished the song and ducked back into my chair with my head down: "Oh man… Please don't anybody look at me." After the ceremony, I met my parents in the lobby. My mom grabbed me and pulled me aside. I was biting my lip. I was sure she would say, “What happened out there? Yikes!” But instead she just looked at me. “What mom?” I said anxiously. I had to know. Was everyone talking about my poor performance? I felt sick. "Aja...your voice. It’s so deep. It sounded beautiful." I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I was in shock. “I mean it,” she continued, “It's unique." People began to come up to me, one by one, paying compliment after compliment. I was speechless. A mix of emotions swelled inside of me: Anger--over having spent the last 5 years afraid of my voice. Joy--that maybe I had a decent one after all. Pain--from supressing it for so long. And exhaustion--from the world of worry I had dragged myself through. Although it was just the beginning of my journey, It was how I learned the one thing that I tell every person who says they can’t sing:
Everybody has a voice. And anybody can learn to sing. If you believe otherwise, it is because somebody once told you that you didn't sound good. YOU made the decision that you didn't sound good. Maybe you didn't like the sound of your voice when you sang. Here is the truth. Everyone has a sound that comes out of them, and it is full of the experiences they have had, and the life that they have lived. It may not be beautiful to you, but it is yours, and nobody else's. It is beautiful in its own way. If you want it bad enough, then you will sing until it becomes just as strong as any other muscle does. People tell me I was born with this voice, and that’s why I wrote this story --because I know the truth in my heart. I love my voice. It has been through everything with me. It is how I express the love I have for life, and how I express the pain I feel from it as well. It is my voice, and as long as it is here, I will honor it, and do the things that I must do to keep it healthy. I hope that my words have reached you as you’ve read this, and that they reach you even deeper as someone with a voice—a voice worth using. I want to hear your pain. I want to hear your love, and maybe if I am lucky, someday I’ll hear your voice, too.