On the outside, it may have appeared to be another regular Wednesday at the William H. Hannon Library. On the inside, a momentous event was taking place. It was the fourth annual LMU Speaks program, and four members of the LMU community were telling their true stories. The theme for the night was “The Unspeakable.” Each individual told a powerful story in which they responded to the prompt: “Tell us stories of the indescribable and the inconceivable. Stories of mistranslation and language fails. Stories we suppressed, kept in the dark… and all those times when we couldn’t find the words.”
It was a night of grief as much as a night of understanding and hopes for the future. I sat near the back of the audience during the entirety of the event, and yet, the heads that were in front of me became nothing but a blur as the speakers poured their hearts before us, and I wouldn’t stop watching them. Opening themselves to us took bravery as their stories were nothing but personal. Throughout the night, they taught the public the importance of speaking up, of being brave to show the world what happened, and how we can learn from it.
The first speaker was Drew Cox, a freshman with an undeclared major. He was born in Los Angeles, California, where he lived with his father and mother, who attended the event alongside Drew’s brother. Drew spoke about having autism; when he discovered he had it, what is it like to live with it, and how it affected his family and his hopes for the future. From the second he got in front of the audience, he earned everyone’s laughs while still talking about such an important part of his life. He told us about his challenges in school and with communication–how it affected him socially and the way he isolated himself. Yet, alongside that, he told the audience:
“My uniqueness is something to be proud of.”
He told us about the importance of TLC (The Learning Community), a group dedicated to the success of students of African descent at the university. Drew was sure he would be successful in whatever he chose to do, that he would look for self-growth instead of validation, and that he discovered what he was truly capable of. Drew wanted everyone in the room to learn to see people with autism as people outside of the spectrum, who have talents and dreams. “I want everyone in this room to connect with a person with a disability in any given way,” he said, causing the room to explode in applause.
The second speaker of the night was another LMU student. Natalie Christensen, a freshman film student in SFTV, talked about a deeply personal story about something many women go through in their lifetime, but only a few tell, and how she transformed what happened to her into a lesson. She narrated a story that occurred in a time of her life when she was voiceless and the pain it caused her. The people in the audience were holding a respectful silence, many nodding their heads, understanding her pain. Natalie told us how she was encouraged by adults not to share her story, and how her friends and classmates didn’t speak up about it.
“The silence really spoke volumes to me,” she said.
After, she told us she has learned to understand how other people are hurting too. She told us that she wanted to use film as an art medium to change the way people think and to empower the voiceless. She insisted that if she didn’t empower the voiceless, she became voiceless again.
The third speaker was Jon Rou, a charismatic university photographer at LMU. He told us many stories in one. He told us how he lived in a beautiful farm in Florida but how “life on the farm wasn’t always a beautiful thing.”
He told us small things like the meals his grandmother cooked and how his grandfather wasn’t the kindest of men. He told us about living in a time and place where segregation was still prominent and how as a teenager he was sent to what he would later learn was a “segregation academy.” He said he knew there was something wrong about his community, and his place in it, but was unable to find the words to articulate his experience. Jon prompted us to think about identity issues within our communities and within ourselves.
Finally, the last speaker was Dr. Kim Harris, from the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, and her beautiful narrative about grief. She asked us, “How do you remember someone?” as she dove into the recent passing of a friend she had had for 42 years. The unspeakable to her was receiving that dreaded email that would soon turn into a phone call–the call that would inform her about her friend. She told us that when she first heard the news, she thought, “I can’t breathe,” before letting a small silence reign.
“I still can’t breathe,” she said.
She told us everything. From what her friend did and how good she was at it. About how they met in a folk music festival in Philadelphia. How she flew to Connecticut, where her friend lived, and had to identify her body alongside her friend’s family. About how they organized the house. How they went to the shore under a beautiful sunset and scattered her ashes as they sang and held each other.
Recently she was watching the Oscars, she told us. When they were honoring celebrities who had passed away, the only thing she could think about was her friend, and how she was now with the ancestors. “I don’t know how to keep breathing when her earthly presence is not with me,” she continued. When she was about to finish her story, and the audience fell into quietness, she sang “Yesterday” by The Beatles. Her voice was beautiful and strong, as it resonated in our hearts.
All the speakers of the night held pain and hopes in their hearts, and yet, they stood proudly and told the unspeakable. They spoke about race, sexuality, mental illness, sexual assault, grief, art, and the ability to understand others. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to document this, and I hope that those who listened to them remember them when they encounter someone in need of help.
This post was written by library student ambassador, Agustina. Agustina is a first-year international student and library ambassador majoring in psychology. She was born in Argentina but was raised in Puerto Rico and Uruguay. She has an interest in both reading and writing and hopes to one day become a published author.