“Oh, that’s the pale girl who never talks.” A common phrase of recognition I would hear my friends relay to me after they asked someone else if they knew Jessica Tebben in early high school. The pale part was never really what bothered me. I know I’m pale. You know I’m pale. Maybe we don’t have to recognize it as an indicating factor of my being, but that’s fine.
What troubled me most was that I didn’t make enough of an impact with my voice to be anything more than “the shy girl” who sat in class with you during seventh period. It made me feel small.
My excuse was always this: Talking to people makes me nervous. I’m not charming or funny. I have nothing to worthwhile to say. The reasons I made myself believe these things was probably a deeper self-esteem issue (I was in high school and even middle school, after all), but they all pointed to one thing. My voice wasn’t strong enough to be heard. I wasn’t giving myself a chance to make statements, bold or small, every day. I never felt qualified to have an opinion on anything.
I always joke about peaking in high school. For the first year of high school, and for years before that, I refused to use my voice for fear of what? Being ridiculed? During my sophomore year, I joined student publications. I wrote stories from the points of view of other students. I listened to the voices of confident peers and teachers and decided that I wanted a piece of that pie.
I say I peaked in high school because that’s where I found my voice. I took on a leadership role on the Spartana (my high school’s (award winning!) student newspaper). As the Life Editor, I also took on columnist duties.
Jess Sayin’, my lifestyle column that was published biweekly, was advice and life tidbits in my own words. What made me qualified to give anyone advice? Nothing. But it was popular among my friends, and people I didn’t know recognized me by the picture next to my words. And, believe it or not, people were listening to what I had to say now. My voice was being heard by my peers and my teachers. And a lot of people liked it. Surprise!
In high school, Jess Sayin’ became my legacy. My other leadership roles as Life Editor meant a lot to me moving forward, too, but my own words being read by possibly hundreds of students made me feel like a big shot. People were listening.
And then college. It didn’t destroy me. I still think I’m charming and funny and well spoken (if I do say so myself). But I struggled to find my voice again. I realized traditional journalism wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I still wanted to write. Jessica, you love writing, I would think to myself. Don’t give up on that. My writing was (and is) my favorite voice. It’s not my only voice, but it’s the one I love the most.
So here I am in public relations, a writing-heavy profession that sometimes doesn’t satisfy my need to feel heard on a personal level. But my internship with The Community Foundation of Muncie and Delaware County has taught me that being heard doesn’t always need to involve my voice alone.
Founder Stories is a project I’ve loved being a part of because it has put me in contact with countless inspiring and driven people. It has allowed me to tell the story of Nancy Smith, a wonderful woman who loves animals and is passionate about giving proper care and love to the elderly. It has allowed me to tell the story of Ashley Burgauer, a young woman taken from us too soon, and the positive impact she had on the friends, family and community she left behind. These stories have taught me what it means to be kind and how bad situations always have silver linings.
Telling these stories has not only been an honor to me, but it has also taught me that my voice can be used in other ways from my own personal gain. It can be used to tell the stories of people who deserve to be recognized. I can use my voice to project other voices even louder.
I found my voice in writing. I use my voice for good through writing. I won’t stop writing, ever, because I have things to say and I’m no longer afraid to say them. I’m starting to think that maybe I didn’t peak in high school after all. Jess Sayin’.