I was a socially awkward child. There was a reason for it.
When you’ve been scolded for speaking in the presence of visitors, when you’ve been made fun of and teased mercilessly, you learn that no one cares what you feel about a given subject. When you are never asked which flavor of ice cream you prefer or what cereal you’d like, you realize that your preferences have no import within the family.
I was the invisible child. I appeared when it was demanded, but only in body. My mouth only opened when I was forced into speaking. It was a rough way to grow up.
By the time I was five, being invisible had become my salvation. It kept me safe from punishment for saying or doing the wrong thing. It also made me miserable. I was an unhappy child whose self-esteem was nonexistent.
For some reason that I’ll never understand, my parents decided to enroll me in Kindergarten. At that time K was not required, and so it cost money, of which my parents had very little.
It quickly became apparent that I was academically behind my peers. I could not name all of the colors, did not know shapes, knew no letters of the alphabet and could not write numbers. While this lack of knowledge placed me far beyond my classmates, and I recognized my ignorance even at that young age, it also placed me at a disadvantage whenever it became time to work with others, either on schoolwork or on the playground.
My teacher thought that I was just shy and that I’d overcome it. She was wrong.
Day after day I sat silent in my assigned chair. I did not speak when the teacher asked me a question. If cornered, I could manage a whisper, but only a word or two. Just enough to respond.
On the playground I was a loner. I loved to swing, but I refused to stand in line to have a turn. Instead I played in the sand, by myself, day after day. Even after a storm when the sand was damp, that’s where I’d be.
When Kindergarten ended, I knew a lot of things. I had learned colors, shapes, numbers and letters. I could hold a pencil correctly and write my name, the alphabet and numbers. I could draw shapes and color within the lines. But I could not speak and I had no friends.
It was a terrible way to begin one’s academic career.
As I grew older, I understood what was required to get the grades my parents expected, so I did all the things that my teachers demanded. I still sat silent, however, even when called upon to respond. No matter how hard I tried, I could not muster the strength to squeak. It was embarrassing.
Things improved somewhat in junior high. By then I had developed a voice, but it was a quiet one. I still had no friends. I could not approach someone and initiate conversations and had a hard time participating even when I had something to offer.
In high school I made one friend. She was a loner like me. Somehow we found each other. Together we could speak. It was an awesome feeling.
I don’t remember her name, but I do remember the hours we spent walking her neighborhood talking about all kinds of things.
For me, it was a revelation. Someone cared what I thought and really wanted to know and understand my opinions!
Can you understand how liberating that was?
By the time I enrolled in college I had overcome much of the paralyzing fear I had of speaking out in class. I could raise my hand and answer in front of others, as long as the class was small. I could voice an opinion. I could find others like me.
I’d like to report that I am no longer shy, but that is not true.
I am comfortable with those who know me, but uncomfortable in groups of people who do not. This makes it challenging when I go to conferences and workshops. I am with ten to fifteen total strangers who are going to critique my writing and I am expected to critique theirs. It’s painfully hard.
In a crowd of “family” which includes people who I either don’t know or barely know, I find a corner in which to plop down and hide there.
People who have known me for a long time don’t believe that I am shy. Around them I am confident that they truly want to know what I think, and so I can relax and be me. I love being with those friends as they recognize that I am a person of worth.
If only I had felt this growing up. Imagine how different I might have turned out!