Confidence: Stories about finding your voice

This week we present two stories about people finding strength in their own voice.

Part 1: A parent-teacher conference leads Eugenia Duodu to question whether she can be a scientist.

Eugenia Duodu is the Toronto-based CEO of Visions of Science, which inspires kids from low-income and marginalized communities to pursue careers in STEM. As a youth born and raised in a low-income community, she strives to maintain a strong connection to her local and global community by being a mentor and advocate. Her goal is to help make a long-lasting positive impact in communities through STEM engagement and in-turn allow youth to unlock their potential. Eugenia holds a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Toronto.

Part 2: At 13 years old Misha Gajewski has to undergo a jaw surgery to fix a face she is just getting used to.

Misha is a freelance journalist whose work has been featured on Vice, BBC and CTV News, among others. She is also a journalism Professor at Seneca College and a scriptwriter for the popular Youtube channel SciShow. Misha has a degree in business and psychology from Western University and a Masters in science journalism from City University London. She also has a cat named Satan and when she’s not writing in her pyjamas she can be found exploring the world or repurposing old furniture. She is @mishagajewski


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Eugenia Duodu

So I remember my first bad parent-teacher interview.  These things always made me super nervous anyway because you never know what your teacher is going to say about you or expose about you.  

So I’m there sitting in the hallway reflecting on what kind of student I've been for the last little while.  And I know that I've been a good student. I get good grades, I get along with my classmates, I don't really talk too much but I talk just enough to get participation marks.  Everything seems to be okay and I don’t think that this is going to be a problem at all.

My teacher calls me into the room.  My mom is sitting there looking a little concerned.  I already know that this is going to be bad.

My teacher turns to my mom and says, “You know, I just don’t understand Eugenia.  I can’t tell if she's giving me attitude or not. And sometimes, she comes off as really aggressive.”  

The Grade-Four me is sitting there like, “What are you talking about?”  

So she goes on and my mom is pressing her like, “So what is she doing that’s so strange, that’s so out of character?  She's such a kind sweet girl. How is she changing in the classroom?”

My teacher’s responses are extremely vague and she kept saying, “I just can’t pinpoint it but I just can’t handle her attitude.  And she makes these facial expressions. They're very… I don't know.”

So at this point I am making facial expressions and I’m getting an attitude because I’m like, “Who are you talking about, lady?  I am doing so well in your class and I’m really trying hard.”

But I leave feeling defeated because now I’m questioning who I am as a person.  I’m questioning what type of person I am. I’m thinking through every single interaction that I've had in the classroom, going through every single incident that’s happened and seeing that if I could have possibly done something to make my teacher feel this way.  After all, that’s my teacher and I trust her. So if she says that I am a kid that doesn’t have a good attitude, am I a kid that doesn’t have a good attitude? Am I really aggressive and angry?

So I’m sitting on the bus with my mom, feeling really sad and she turns to me and says, “You know what?  Don’t worry. I know that you're a good kid.”

So I carry on with my life and these subtle remarks followed me throughout elementary school and it was super confusing.  I was either seen as this brilliant student with so much potential or this student that’s full of attitude. I never knew what to do because, if I was assertive, I was seen as rude or angry.  If I was presenting rebuttal to a student’s comment, I was seen as being rude. I didn’t know what confidence looked like anymore because I was second-guessing every single one of my actions. This is all while I’m trying to learn and do well and survive in school and be a good kid.  

Eugenia Duodu shares her story at the Burdock Music Hall in Toronto, ON in January 2019. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

Eugenia Duodu shares her story at the Burdock Music Hall in Toronto, ON in January 2019. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

As I’m navigating through these things, I also recognize that I have this passion for science.  It’s so weird because I didn’t feel like I could share this passion with anyone. I was living in a low-income community quite far from the school that I attended.  I would go to my community, see people like me, be around people that I've grown up with that didn’t really share that passion for science, and then I'd be whisked away to my school that was quite out of my writing and be one of six black students in the entire school having to navigate my personality while also trying to learn.  

And in this I was wondering, “Can I be a scientist?”  I’m not really seeing any scientist that looked like me or have my life experience.  After all, I don't even know if I’m a decent person so how can I do that.

As I’m navigating through these various life lessons and life things, I get to high school.  Somehow, by the time I got to high school, I had been seen as a student that was quite confident, fairly assertive and getting very good grades in all her subjects.  

I get into high school and I’m in Grade 10 and I decide to take a course that was only offered at my school, Introduction to Biotechnology.  At this course, we got the opportunity to do hands-on experiments and wear lab coats. I have to tell you, the first time I donned a lab coat I immediately changed.  I don't know what it was. I put on a lab coat, I put on those goggles and, suddenly, I’m walking around the classroom like, “Yes, what do you have over there? Uh-hmm.”  I just felt like this confident scientist and I hadn’t even done any real science yet.

When I started to do the actual science, my life was completely transformed.  I would go to my teacher and be really enthusiastic about the assignments that we had.  And he would continue to stoke that enthusiasm with more information and more encouragement.  I was starting to shed a little bit of the baggage of trying to sort out what type of person I was and if I was too much or too less.  I just needed to know what I was doing and be curious and be confident about that, so I was.

One of our main assignments was identifying an unknown bacterial strain.  We each got this little vial and we had to spend the entire last half of the semester trying to put together all of our knowledge to identify what was in this vial.  I finish my project two weeks before everyone else. It wasn’t because there was anything special about me, I just loved it. I inhaled all of the information. I was there as late as I could be.  I loved it.

So I was passionate.  My passion for science and my confidence in science had grown.  So I head over to my guidance counselor because I had already chosen my courses for Grade 11 and I really didn’t think that I was going to pursue science up to this point.  

So I run over to my guidance counselor’s office really confident that I’m going to make these changes.  I had done super well in this biotechnology class and I had done well in science at this point. So I got to the guidance counselor and I was like, “Okay, I need to take Chemistry, Biology and Physics, please.”  

She looks at me she's like, “No.  I think that will be too hard for you.”

Eugenia Duodu shares her story at the Burdock Music Hall in Toronto, ON in January 2019. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

Eugenia Duodu shares her story at the Burdock Music Hall in Toronto, ON in January 2019. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

I’m like, “I’m sorry.  I'll say this again. I'd like to take Chemistry, Biology and Physics, please.”  

Again, she's like, “No, this will be too hard for you.  It’s a really tough course load. I don't know if you know how hard it is.  Physics is super hard too. I don't think that you want to go through this.”  

I’m like, “But I finished the Biotechnology project in three weeks and I’m doing really well.  I don't understand why you don’t think that I can do this.”

Then she says, “Wait a minute.  You're Keisha, right?”

Spoiler alert.  My name is not Keisha.  It’s Eugenia.

So I said, “No, I’m not,” and she then proceeds to pull up my marks.  

Afterwards, after kind of a back and forth, feeling really flustered, she just sends me out of the office.  

I go home.  I tell my mom about this story and that sweet lady that told me, “Don’t worry.  You're a good kid,” turned into someone else. Needless to say, I was registered in Chemistry, Biology and Physics by the end of it.  

And as much as I continued to struggle with finding my place, figuring out if I put up my hand right now and I give an answer, what kind of confidence should I have in my voice?  How will that be seen by the people around me? Maybe I shouldn’t put up my hand at all.

As I've navigated through that, I always remember that confidence that I had putting on that lab coat for the first time and what that did in terms of me being able to discover something.  I’m so happy that at least for that moment, I was able to take control of my narrative and I've been having to do that ever since, but I’m so happy that I did. Thank you.


Part 2: Misha Gajewski

I’m eight years old and I’m in a dentist waiting room and I’m pumped.  See, this dentist waiting room is unlike any other dentist waiting room I've ever been in.  There is not a single gross germy wooden-bead-metal, contraption in sight. Instead, there is a play castle.  And I’m talking Disney Princess fairytale kind of castle. It’s the shit.

But I’m called into the doctor’s office and I’m sat in the chair and this joy that I've been feeling because of this awesome waiting room that they have starts to wane when the dentist tells my mom and I that I don't know how to swallow properly.  

See, up until this point, I thought I was doing a perfectly fine job at this task.  It’s a basic human function. I’m pretty sure I got this, dude. But, according to the dentist, I did not got this.  What was happening when I swallowed, my tongue would push against my front teeth and this, to the dentist’s horror, was giving me an overbite, a.k.a. chipmunk teeth.  

So I got outfitted with a really fancy contraption.  It was this kind of retainer thing and in the middle of it was a pink, plastic rolling-pin like device.  So every time I swallowed I'd have to roll this rolling pin back. I wasn’t super thrilled that this was in my mouth.  Number one, the glue that fused it in there ruined every meal that day. It also made eating sandwiches really hard. The bread would get stuck in it, which was super gross.  

But the alternative was spikes, and so if you didn’t swallow properly you would puncture your tongue.  I’m convinced that orthodonture is just medieval torture in disguise.

Eventually, I learned how to swallow like a normal and I figured I was done with this foray into orthodontics until I met Dr. Dankus.  This woman is the epitome of perfection. She has that perfect bob with not a hair out of place. She's the kind of woman that owns like 18 versions of the exact same dress.  

She tells me when I first meet her that my lower jaw isn’t big enough or substantial enough to support my lower teeth and so, if we don’t fix this immediately, all my lower teeth are going to fall out.  I still have nightmares about my teeth falling out. I hate her because she just told an 11-year-old kid that her face sucked. What a bitch.

Misha Gajewski shares her story at the Burdock Music Hall in Toronto, ON in January 2019. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

Misha Gajewski shares her story at the Burdock Music Hall in Toronto, ON in January 2019. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

So to fix this problem of my teeth possibly falling out in the future, I need to have jaw surgery.  But before that can happen I need to stop growing. Now, the signs of at least a girl finishing her growth period is… or at least physical growth period, not mental.  That continues forever. Is her first period and a bone fusing in your hand. So I think I’m good for another couple of years.

But one day when I’m 13, I’m sitting on the toilet and I notice blood in my underwear and I go through all of the stages of grief.  First, there is denial. I think this is internal bleeding that’s just somehow become external.

Then there's bargaining, like, “Oh, please let it be internal bleeding.  Or maybe I just cut myself on my leg. I don't know.”

Then we get anger because I’m done growing and I didn’t even make it past 5’2”.  What is this? Like was it really too much for my genes to go for 5”4”? Just the average height.  Come on! But, no.

Then comes acceptance.  So I realize I now have to tell the orthodontist that I've become a woman.  I’m a 13-year-old kid. I don't want to tell my mother I got my period let alone an orthodontist.  But I don't see another way out of this, so there I am, sat in a chair, telling an orthodontist it’s time.  I honestly hoped the chair had swallowed me whole but it didn’t.

Nonetheless, this set in motion a series of events that were completely out of my control and I was scared because the vain part of me was terrified I was going to come out ugly.  The self-conscious part of me was very worried about what my middle-school peers were going to say because they make fun of you for wearing the wrong brand of t-shirt let alone coming back to school with your face rearranged.  So I can only imagine the torment that’s going to come when I walk back into school with a new face.

But because I’m 13, I deal with this in the most 13-year-old way possible and I become, according to my family, a nightmare hell child.  There were a lot of moments of just listening to Simple Plan at very loud volumes but there is also even more outrageous acts of defiance, like, once, I locked myself in the car in the garage all day long.  I mean I did my homework in there, I ate in there, and no matter who told me, “You should probably get out of the car,” it didn’t matter. My mom tried. My dad tried. My brother tried. Even my grandmother, at one point, tried.  

This all ended with me being like, “Fine, if you don’t want me in the car, I'll run away from home.”  And if you run away from home in the dead of Canadian winter, you make it exactly one block without a coat.  So that’s as far as I made it and I turned back around.

It really didn’t matter how many rebellious acts I did or how much of an asshole I was, the day came where I was laying on a gurney with one of those stupid paper gowns, that doesn’t really cover the back of you for some reason, waiting to be rolled into a surgery room while my mom wonders out loud mostly about if I'll actually wake up from the anesthesia or if the surgeon, who is a very lovely man but kind of has hands the size of baseball gloves, has the dexterity not to mangle my petite, chinless face.  

But before I know it, I’m being given laughing gas and anesthesia and then I’m being gently shaken awake by a nurse and my mom telling me I really need to get up now because the next surgery has started.  

So I put my hands underneath my shoulders and I push up and I fall right back down onto my new face.  I think, “Okay. It’s not like waking up from a nap. Let’s try it one more time.” Up I go, right back down.  

Misha Gajewski shares her story at the Burdock Music Hall in Toronto, ON in January 2019. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

Misha Gajewski shares her story at the Burdock Music Hall in Toronto, ON in January 2019. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

At this point my mom’s whisper-screaming at me to let her help me and I’m being defiant but, eventually, I sit up and navigate the intricacies of putting on a t-shirt stoned.  It does not go well. But I make it home and then I spend the next week in recovery, which mostly consists of me lying on a couch watching daytime television, drooling, because when they did the surgery they cut the nerves in my face so I couldn’t feel anything.  

During that whole week, I avoided mirrors at all cost.  I mean, I even went to the bathroom in the dark to not look at my reflection because I was so terrified at what I would see.  But the day came where I would have to go back to school really soon so I figured I might as well figure out what I’m working with.  

So I walk up to the mirror and then I slowly look up, and it’s a horror show.  There is a huge bandage plastered on my face that’s covered in drool and ice cream stains and blood.  And because they took my wisdom teeth out, my face is three times larger than it normally is and there's bruising.  I immediately burst into tears.

And then I realize that crying is not helping this situation or my looks in any way, shape or form so we better cut that out right now.  I start to dread going back to school and I know there's really no way to get out of it because, in my household, the only way you get out of going to school is if you're projectile vomiting or you have a fever, so we’re going to have to face the music.  

My mom drops me off at school and I’m waiting in line for the teachers to let us in.  A kid from my class comes up to me and he says, “Hey, who are you? Are you new here?”  

All of the fears I had come rushing in and I’m like, “No.  No, I’m Misha.”

He's like, “No, you're not.”  

“Yes, I am.”  Because I am. I am me.  I just have a slightly different face.  

And apart from this one kid, everything else is okay.  My friends don’t relentlessly mock me. They think I look a bit weird but, overall, like myself.  Eventually, the bruising goes away and the swelling comes down and my new face becomes my face, and I become okay with my face.  In fact, I like this face better because at least this face won’t let my lower teeth fall out. Thank you.