Whenever we have an English class on a Friday, my teacher, Mrs. Jansen, does what we like to call “secrets”. Every student gets a chance to write down an anonymous secret onto a slip of paper, which goes into a large tub. Afterwards, everyone who contributed a secret draws one out of the container and reads it aloud to the class. These secrets can be funny or serious. Sometimes they’re about the class itself, or about school, or about life.
While a small handful of people opt not to participate in this biweekly activity, most of us do. I mean, what’s the harm? After all, we’re all protected by a sort of unspoken moral code. To belittle or criticize the person who put in the secret would be immediately condemned by the rest of the class. To confess who actually put in the secret is besides the point of the activity, regardless of how innocuous that secret might be. The anonymity of the whole affair is a huge part of the fun of it. The feeling of hearing a juicy secret and realizing that anyone around you could have put it in is what makes it all exciting.
But the shallow excitement of gossip is nothing compared to the almost therapeutic effect it has on me (and I assume) all of our class. As we go through each secret, we turn the secrets into discussions. We voice our support, our concerns, our advice, for each person who confesses something on a slip of paper.
To unrequited lovers hoping to work up the courage to confess, we offer encouragement. To those stressed, we offer our own tips and stories about our own stressors. To those left heartbroken by rejection, we offer sympathy. To the confused, guidance. To the funny stories, laughter. And even to those with problems too difficult to address, too outside of our realms of experience to advise, we snap our fingers and let them know that they are heard.
I’ve put in all manner of secrets, both silly and not-so-silly. I am, not really on purpose, kind of a wealth of closely kept thoughts and worries. As much as I know I have a strong support system of people who care about me and want to help me… they shouldn’t have to always hear the things I worry about. Sometimes there’s nothing they can do. Sometimes those worries are about them. Sometimes they’re too hard to say aloud.
But for those sorts of things, there’s a white slip of paper on my desk at the end of Friday IB English class. There’s a classroom of people who don’t know who I am but still care about what I’m going through.
These aren’t really scary or dangerous secrets, don’t worry. But they’re embarrassing sometimes, or hard to explain, or don’t align with the way I want to present myself. Sometimes they’re things I’ve told close friends already, but never aloud. There’s a real benefit to hearing your own thoughts echoed aloud, and having others acknowledge and comment on them.
I, for very obvious reasons, don’t want to get too specific about any of the secrets I’ve confessed in this activity, but I will say that one of my more recent ones garnered maybe one of the most positive responses I have ever received. To be vague, it was the story of the disappointing result of a very uncharacteristically huge social risk I took. I was expecting a few finger snaps of sympathy, but instead Mrs. Jansen told us she was proud of the writer of the secret for being mature about their disappointment, and lots of other classmates agreed that it was an admirable response to a difficult situation.
And I… almost seriously burst into tears. I didn’t, thankfully, but it was incredible to hear a classroom of completely unbiased people validate the, for lack of a better term, sucky situation I had found myself in.
No one solved my problems, of course. They didn’t have to. But what they did was provide me feedback to a difficult decision I had made without being influenced by their knowledge of me or of my situation. And that, I think, is the beauty of the “secrets” activity.
(And just as a small note, the situation I’m talking about has since more or less resolved itself into a far more positive thing, lest you all begin worrying about me.)
I don’t think I’m alone in saying that trusting the feedback of others is difficult. Contrary to what a lot of millennial thinkpieces like to claim, having a childhood of “everyone’s a winner” is not only not really the truth, it also doesn’t really make you feel entitled, it makes you skeptical of every piece of praise you receive. I’ve been told I’m smart and skilled and in the right and just overall good so many times that it’s hard to believe any of those things. I mean, all throughout elementary school I was in a class of kids who were smart and skilled and in the right and just overall good.
Taking a compliment from someone at face-value is pretty rare. Most of the time I brush them off as a result of having friends and family who love me and want to make me happy, or as a result of somebody mistakenly thinking I’m more put-together than I am.
But with the secrets… I get guidance and suggestion without the fear of having things sugarcoated.
Plus, and this is kind of an important thing too, it’s nice to know you’re not alone in even the most embarrassing of things. The negative things in my life are not the sort of thing I want to wear on my chest like Superman’s S, but being able to quietly let them out and see people in the same situation is really helpful.
And that, I think, is the beauty of “secrets”. The anonymity that comes with it is a safety blanket, a place to confess hard truths without fear of getting hurt. There’s a lot of value in that.