One day when I was in fifth grade, I noticed that the teacher was being unusually unkind to my best friend at the time who was also the top student in the class.
This friend was usually very well liked by all the teachers, so it was very unusual.
The teacher called her, “Blondie!” and yelled at her what to do.
I remember growing uncomfortable and feeling guilty for staying quiet. For leaving my friend defenseless.
After a while, the teacher stopped teaching and opened a conversation about what she had done with my friend. I don’t remember the details, just that it happened.
She explained that she had arranged with my best friend and her family to stage that relationship. (It had been planned in advance for us as an experience that would help us understand an upcoming discussion of the Holocaust. I don’t remember anything else we did related to the Holocaust that year.)
The question she asked us has stayed with me for a long time: “Why didn’t you speak up?”
A few years ago (which was close to 40 years after the incident!) the fifth grade teacher reached out to me on Facebook. It was fun to connect, as she had stayed a part of my life into the beginning of my own teaching career before we lost touch.
One day she commented on a post I made. She made a connection between the post and who I had been in fifth grade. She asked me if I remembered the above incident.
Then she said something that floored me.
She said that I was the only one who had asked her why she had talked to my friend in that way.
According to her, I HAD in fact spoken up.
That wasn’t how I remembered it!
It was a while until timing could bring us together to talk about the incident from fifth grade. But, we did finally get together to share how we each remembered it.
According to my teacher, I had in fact spoken up and asked her why she was treating my best friend that way.
I took that in.
When and why had that the memory shifted so much?
Why did I remember feeling so powerless in that situation?
Then, she shared what had impacted her the most.
Apparently, in the discussion that we had after the staging, she asked the class why we hadn’t said anything while it was happening. (In my case, I internalized the question – why hadn’t I said anything sooner.)
According to my teacher, I answered, “Because you’re the teacher.”
She still remembered that answer, and the impact it had on her. It made her think differently about the events of the Holocaust.
We learn in school to obey, to conform and follow the rules.
So much so, that even while I may actually have said something impactful, I remember feeling voiceless.
Clearly, it’s one thing to speak and another to feel that you have an empowered voice.
Just because we speak doesn’t mean we feel heard.
The struggle to feel heard continued for me well into my adult life.
Slowly, I discovered two things.
1) I could have and already had had an impact. People had been listening even if they hadn’t showed it.
2) By finding my empowered voice, I could create the life I wanted.
At work and at home.
So, are you ready to go from powerless to empowered?
Leah Zimmerman is an Intergenerational Resolving Conflict Expert and Family Business Advisor who makes hard conversations easy. She blends her background in education, theater, personal development and spirituality to create transformational conversations for individuals, teams and families. Find Leah on Linkedin at to learn more.