James Cassar

My 'Secret' Reflex Didn't Stop Me From Finding My Voice

I just found it on my own terms.

Had you known my worst childhood fears included Jim Carrey's portrayal of the Grinch and the clown from the inlay card of NSYNC's No Strings Attached, you'd already know the following statement is true: I scare easily. Loud noises get answered with an exaggerated flinch, my right hand usually jerking up to salute the sound while my face contorts and my eyes squint. If you need a visual, the next time you try to sneeze, don't. Hold it in, rush to a mirror before you explode (if time permits), and you'll be about as close as you can to miming my middle school experience.

In the 7th grade, my secret reflex was found out. During a classroom celebration, someone had popped a balloon and it seemed I popped along with it, my body jumping and jerking like it was sailing upward while losing air. Ever since that moment, I couldn't go to the bathroom without someone kicking the stall, or work in class without someone screaming “Bah!” in my left ear. The scrunched shoulders and surprised hand answered the stimulus every time. Being that I went to school with only 36 people, word of this traveled at light speed. And it continued into the next year.

I had my physical therapist do some quick research. Hypersensitivity, she found, was super-common in kids with cerebral palsy, a disability of mine that my peers knew about but rarely discussed in earnest. My specific case, hyperhearing, causes auditory stimuli (“Bah!”) to be registered as extremely loud and uncomfortable. The reactions to these noises are sometimes unpredictable, just like my entry into this world was early: 14 weeks before full-term. Like most things during these therapy sessions — gripping a fork properly, sliding an ice cube across my foot to raise my toes, learning to cut dotted lines without frayed edges — they seemed to be learned late yet deeply internalized. They became stories to be remembered but rarely shared, out of weakness or, well, the cacophonous response that may have followed. Until now.

Pigeon, Michigan, is a small town that small-town America would probably eat for breakfast. Less than a thousand people called that place home in 2008, or so that's what our guide at the Harvest Wind Farm told us. Either this field trip was to show eighth graders that the pressure of 300-plus wind turbines didn't match up to whatever hormones ransacked our bodies, or it forced most of us to look up from our flip phones for more than a passing nod.

James Cassar

Me, in eighth grade.

There was another, uh, alternative energy source present that day. We stood on hefty piles of manure while more mountains of brown sludge stacked against them. During a dull moment in the presentation (it was hard to find, really), I heard a sound. It wasn't the wind, or the busy ptt-ptt-ptt of the Farm's windmills; it was a familiar monosyllabic scream. Bah! Down I went, sliding further and further until my jeans were caked with the stuff. I was hosed off. The screamer and one other classmate were forced to accompany me into a neighboring high school to find a bathroom. Pigeon's finest females stared me down, but stopped at my legs, which were now soaked in something more immediate than a limping gait.

At least no one kicked the stall this time.

Months later, it seemed confusing that I'd propose to link up with these noisemakers to make more noise. The three of us arranged with our principal to swap out eighth grade graduation speeches for a set of cover songs. I'd sing The Killers's “When You Were Young.” I'd be the one making the noise. It was set. My parents had packed the karaoke machine for transport to another house. We'd be rock stars for a night, and for once, my jerky right hand would raise only to grip a microphone.

My physical therapist was a little hesitant about this change of plans. Didn't these kids bully you? Didn't they take your weakness and shove it in your face? Why help them do something? Seeing as the school was too small to really have cliques, let alone a cafeteria, it was hard to tell if I could draw the line between friends and enemies. It did bother me that I was backing down and refusing to grow a backbone, but I figured after this final performance, I'd never see these people again.

The truth is, I never went through with it. I was afraid I'd stink.

Instead, I approached the stage, grabbed the mic, and spoke. Legs weakly bent, I talked about how middle school taught me that even when you are perceived differently, you're definitely not unable to find your voice — and you do so on your own terms. I confessed I didn't know what the future held, but I know today I'm surrounded by noise — as a label co-owner, publicist, band manager, and music writer.

James Cassar

The noise now comes when I'm ready to listen.

Want to be an MTV Founders contributor? Send your full name, age, and pitches to mtvfounders@gmail.com.