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Silent Applause

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 Once there was a girl I did not like. This did not happen often; usually I liked something about everyone. But not Nell. For one thing, she giggled. She was a freshman, she wore ribbons in her hair, and she giggled.

Of course, in the logical part of my mind I did have to admit that she had some positive points. She was pretty, and she was a talented pianist. But somehow these things made me, well, almost angry with her because I kept thinking, She could be a worthwhile person if only she would stop acting like a baby.

I was monitor of Nell’s floor in the dorm. At least once every evening I had to walk all the way to the end of the wing to her room and ask her to stop giggling. I can still see her standing there, limp with laughter, her great brown eyes solemned by my presence, saying, “I’m sorry.”

She laughed at the most ridiculous things. She laughed at everything and nothing.

Every evening when I had my private devotions before I began monitoring, I prayed that I wouldn’t lose my temper with Nell. I felt it was work to keep from getting outwardly angry with her.

Nell enjoyed almost instant acclaim on our campus for her musical ability. But for my part, I wondered why such talent had been wasted on someone like her. A person with a degree of seriousness could do so much with it.

Well, I was nice to Nell. I did not lose my temper with her when she giggled during study periods. But in a small, secret way I “got even” with her. And now I am embarrassed to remember, much less write down the fact, that I never applauded when she performed, which was often.

While others cheered and clapped, I sat still, with my hands in my lap. It was simply a principle, I told myself. But I didn’t feel happy about the situation. Disliking someone made me most uncomfortable.

Slow reveal

One evening just before Christmas vacation, I went to the laundry room very late to catch up on my ironing. Who should be there trying to bone up for a history exam but Nell. I spoke, but was careful not to begin a conversation. 

Things were pleasantly quiet for a long time, and then Nell asked, “Joan, are you going home for Christmas?”

“Yes,” I answered.

There was a long pause, then, “Do you have brothers or sisters?”

My weakness is my family. I love to talk about my family to anyone. So I told Nell about the whole happy bunch—names, ages, everything. Nell was an enthusiastic listener. I even liked the way she giggled—when it was at my stories of little brother’s cleverness. At length I asked about her family.

Nell said, “I have only a father. My mother died when I was 4.” Her great brown eyes were deep and sad.

“I’m sorry, Nell.”

“I wanted a whole family of my own so much. And do you know, we lived in one of those old, static neighborhoods where there weren’t even other children near enough for playmates. I was so lonely.”

The room seemed chill and almost creepy in the midnight silence. I could see Nell as a lonely little girl practicing her piano lessons hour on hour in a great quiet house. I wished I hadn’t talked so much about my own family. 

Suddenly I wanted Nell to giggle all she wanted to during study period or any time. I wanted her to have a grand, happy time with the other girls. And I was glad, glad she could play the piano so well and that everyone applauded for her—everyone except a few old sourpusses.

Then Nell said, “Music became a great joy to me, and I like to think of my talent as being sort of a consolation prize. If I had had friends and a family, I would never have practiced so much. I probably wouldn’t know one note from another. So at least I do have something of value for all my loneliness. I do have my music.”

When I went to my room that night, I felt small enough to enter through the keyhole. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but I thought I had learned that lesson long, long before: If you think you don’t like someone, get close, ask questions, trick yourself a little by saying, “I’m just going to see whether I can understand this person. I don’t have to like them.” 

And it never fails—you end up with a friend. What an immature, negative way I had approached the problem—praying for help to control my anger with Nell.

I thought a long time that night of how much I had cheated myself by wasting time and energy in disliking someone. It seemed to me that dislike is only a form of prejudice, prejudice a form of ignorance. And it is very difficult to find an excuse for ignorance.  


This story originally appeared in the December 21, 1971, issue of Insight. Joan Marie Cook attended La Sierra University and later earned an M.A. in both social work and counseling. She moved to Texarkana, Texas, where she was a counselor in private practice, specializing in groups. She also worked as a school social worker and a psychotherapist in a psychiatric hospital. She published her first book at the age of 21, and she took up writing again later in life, applauded as having “the gift of storytelling.” She died at the age of 79 in September 2015.

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