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Back To School: Being Painfully Shy Turned Me Into The Class Dork

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When I was in third grade, I bashed my forehead on the side of a water fountain and got a massive bump (the kind that you see in cartoons with the circling birdies all around it). It was a loser move, to be sure, but even more loser-ish is the fact that I was too painfully shy to tell anyone what had happened. So I went back to class and sat there until my teacher noticed the giant welt on my forehead and sent me to the office, where the school nurse kept me for hours to ensure it wasn’t an allergic reaction or some horrible disease. My parents were out of town at the time, and so I lied to my babysitter, too, and to my best friend’s father to whom she immediately sent me for “observation” (he’s a doctor and, let me tell you, he looked very concerned).

This is nothing compared to the time in fourth grade when I knew I was going to vomit but was too shy to put up my hand to ask to go to the bathroom. Instead, I threw up all over my desk and on the floor surrounding it. Good times.

When I entered seventh grade, I came to realize how much I loved reading fiction. I’d spend the nights staying up way too late reading, and I can still remember the first coming-of-age book my mother gave me that didn’t contain the words “Sweet Valley High.” It was called Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk, about a New York woman who desperately wants to become an actress, much to her traditional Jewish parents’ dismay (in 1958, the book was made into a film starring Natalie Wood). Anyway, I wrote my very first book report on it for English class and received an A. At the same time, my mom received an urgent phone call from my English teacher asking if I had truly written it; she said the report was highly mature and analytical, but that she had never once heard me express an opinion on anything in class. (Well, duh. It’s one thing to write down your deepest thoughts on paper – it’s another to broadcast them to your classmates.)

Fortunately, I always had lots of friends and was never shunned for my shyness. Despite being so painfully shy, I was also very social and always got invited to birthday parties and play dates (leave it to my Gemini nature to be at once shy and outgoing). As an adult, I have fortunately broken out of my shell; in fact, people who meet me now refuse to believe that I was ever shy, even remotely – they just don’t see it. Even my own husband has a hard time believing it ’til he sees how panic-stricken I get about having to give a brief toast at a family function, for example. To be certain, the shyness lingers – I think it always will – but I’ve been able to get over it for the most part simply by growing up.

I wish I had that ability when I was still in school. While doing my post-grad in journalism, I spent two school years with the same 27 classmates. Almost each and every one was friendly, nice, smart, kind. We were a tight-knit group and spent lots of time together outside the classroom partying it up on weekends or drinking lots of coffee in between classes. It was during these moments that I’d get into heated discussions about politics and world events. I was known for having strong opinions and not being afraid to share them. And, yet, stick me in a classroom even then and I’d turn into a total mute. On the odd occasion that I was involuntarily called upon, I’d stutter and turn tomato red. The same thing happens to me even now in an office boardroom. In a casual setting, I can go on forever; in a more formal group setting, it’s a real effort to even lead a meeting (which, by the way, I can do successfully – I just panic deep down).

Throughout college, I automatically lost 10% off my final grade for “lack of participation.” I actually shared this fact with a friend – a high-school teacher – and she decided to change her “participation” policy in her own classrooms (it had never occurred to her that people didn’t speak up simply because they were shy). She had tons of students thanking her privately.

Anyway, this whole shyness thing has been on my mind a lot lately as we approach the new school year. My older son is somewhat shy, not surprisingly, and I hope that as goes through the system, his teachers will be empathetic. I know that I could have used some teachers who “got” me – you know, one or two who maybe realized that I did have lots of thoughts and opinions on whatever subject we were studying but that I was more comfortable expressing myself on paper, or in smaller groups, rather than in front of a room full of people.

(Photo: Digital Vision)