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It's funny how you can hear or see or smell something that brings back a memory that you had forgotten? The other day I was reading an interesting article about how shy and introverted children suffer growing up and in school and in the society of their peers and it made me remember something that happened when I was in 1st grade that became a rather devastating moment in my young life. In truth, I hadn't forgotten about it altogether, but I had forgotten the intensity of the experience.
I was one of those seriously shy children. I was quiet, introverted, and a natural loner and I tended to isolate myself from my more rambunctious peers. I never got in trouble, never made a scene, and never wanted to be in the spotlight whether good or bad. In first grade, the first year of serious reading, we were divided into three reading groups, which had very clear and distinct labels; the lower level readers, the mid-level readers, and the advanced readers. Back then they made no attempt to spare our feelings about where we stood.
I was an advanced level reader, which should have made me feel pretty good about myself but only made me miserable. The problem was that the advanced level readers were required to read out loud, something that absolutely horrified me. The reading was easy – the drawing attention to myself was painful beyond description. People who do not suffer from extreme shyness have no idea how disabling it can be. A lot of people think of it as something you are doing deliberately or if not, an imaginary disability that ought to be easily overcome. The fact of the matter is that extreme shyness is something that can cause you to freeze into absolute immobility; a kind of stasis that makes it impossible to function, and it is mortifying. Apart from my shyness, I was a sensitive and compassionate little tyke and the fact that the teacher tended to flaunt the advanced readers in the faces of the not so great readers made me squirm. I thought it was mean.
The upshot of all this is that when I was called upon to read out loud, I couldn't do it. It was like an invisible hand was constricting my throat and squeezing until I was incapable of making a single sound. Every time this happened the teacher would give me a hard time and even roll her eyes, which just made the situation even more humiliating. Kids would snicker and whisper and I would want to crawl under my desk and disappear from the world. It finally came to a head when the teacher must have been having a bad hair day because she announced in front of the entire class that if I continued to refuse to read out loud I would be sent down to the lower reading level. In retrospect I imagine that she was trying to use some sort of twisted shock tactics on me because she was well aware of how well I could read. Maybe she thought the humiliation would make me shape up and start reading. It didn't work. I let them demote me instead.
I took a lot of heat from the other kids for that one. They teased me about it and taunted me about being put down in a lower level. It made no difference that I was the only kid who brought an actual chapter book to school every day to read during lunch or recess. Facts are never meaningful when people are delighting in the opportunity to torment someone. And the teacher continued to be derisive and insulting when I had the highest comprehensive reading score in the class and she told me that she felt that I didn't deserve it. That was brutal. Eventually, I ended up in a meeting with the Principal who, after interviewing me, seemed to figure the whole thing out and transferred me to another class where the teacher was far more insightful and eased me into reading out loud with remarkable sensitivity. It also may have had something to do with the fact that I never spoke a word in class again after the incident. Tough to teach someone who won't talk to you.
Because I was who I was I never told my parents or anyone else about it or how painful the whole thing was. My mother, bless her, who never experienced a moment of shyness in her entire life, thought that shyness was something you could be pep-talked out of, which, of course, never works. It is often difficult for extremely extroverted people to even begin to understand introverts much less figure out what to do with them.
Perhaps truly shy, quiet, and introverted children are grossly misunderstood. I certainly was. My teacher thought I was just being stubborn and difficult. She had no idea that I was the complete opposite of both those characteristics. It's kind of sad how casually cruel people can be to children that don't fulfill their expectations of them based on superficial observation. To my teacher I was the best reader in the class and would, therefore, be both able and willing to read out loud. The fact that I wasn't just didn't fit in with her understanding of how the world works.
When I have dealt with very shy and introverted kids I have always told them the same thing, that it is not something of which to be ashamed or dismayed. Being introverted means that you are a thinker and that you are self-contained, two characteristics that translate into personal strengths – not weaknesses.
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