Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Growing Up Shy

One of my earliest memories is when I was about three. I had been invited to a birthday party, and I was taken to the house where the party was, and dropped off. I had never visited other houses before or played with kids outside my family before. A lady in the house took me to a room full of loudly screaming kids. It intimidated me, so I began to cry. She tried to coax me into joining the party, but I would have none of it. Finally, she led me to the end of a hallway and showed me a toddler-sized desk-seat combination where the desk-top was a pegboard, and there was a supply of pegs of various colors. She demonstrated to me how the pegs could be put into the holes and invited me to sit down and try it. It was a quiet nook far from that noisy, scary room, and the novel toy kept me happily occupied until the party was over and it was time for me to go home.

I don't remember interacting much with other kids in kindergarten -- I avoided competition for the toys, and preferred to play by myself. But I do remember once talking to another boy. I was playing with some turtle-shaped metal containers on a window sill when the boy told me that he wished that the sunshine would shine on the other side of the room opposite from the windows. I told him that the sun was high in the sky and light travels in straight lines, so it couldn't reach that side of the room. (Many years later, I wondered how I knew at that age that light travels in straight lines, and figured that it might have been from clapping with chalky hands and seeing the sunlight from the window make straight beams in the cloud of dust.)

As I progressed through school, I didn't talk much, so most of the other kids ignored me. But I was watching them. I remember at an early age having an infatuation with a pretty girl that sat about four seats in front of me. One day I left a note in her desk before she arrived in the classroom, saying "I love you. Jimmy". I assumed that she would be as secretive about it as I was, but no -- when she found it, she blurted out loud to the girls around her "Oh, isn't this cute, Jimmy loves me!" I wished there was a trap-door in the floor that I could disappear through. I learned that communication with the opposite sex was hazardous.

Shy people are careful about talking, especially with strangers, because they are not sure what the reaction will be. They prefer to listen and observe, and I think that they learn more. But talking wasn't a problem at home -- I talked and talked -- they said I lectured. They called me "the professor" or sometimes "the absent-minded professor".

In gym class, however, communication was physical, and I felt I could get some respect. When playing dodge ball, most boys figured that the safest strategy was to hide behind someone else. But when the ball was thrown at the boy in front, you couldn't see the ball coming, and didn't have enough time to react to the direction that he dodged. I thought it was safer to stay in the open where you could see the ball coming, and in back where you had more reaction time. So I was often the last one left, and they would gang up on me, throwing two balls at once. I soon learned how to dodge two balls at once. The trickiest situation was when one ball was high and one low -- I jumped up and turned horizontal, putting my body between the two balls.

Another gym activity took place on a wrestling mat. Half a dozen boys started on the mat. Any one touching the floor off the mat would be out of the game, until only one was left. I had experience wrestling with my three brothers, so it was hard to get me off the mat. Again, they ganged up on me. Four boys went after me, each taking one leg or arm. But I could sense which of them had a solid stance on the mat, and which could be more easily pushed or pulled over. So I braced myself against the ones that were solid to push or pull the others. Another part of the strategy was confusing them as to whether it was a pulling struggle or pushing. And, since they surrounded me, I was in the middle, and less likely to be the first one over the edge of the mat. We went at it for quite a while before the instructor finally stopped the game.

When I was in college, an Israeli student, Marvin Haufmann, befriended me. I remember many times when he would be sitting at a table in the school cafeteria with his Israeli buddies, chatting in Hebrew. He would motion me to come join them, and tell his buddies to switch to English for my sake. Several of them had been aircraft mechanics in the Israeli Air Force, and it was interesting to hear their recollections of 24-cylinder aircraft engines, and other stories. But what was more interesting was how they shared stories and concerns without embarrassment, what a shy person would be afraid to discuss, and everyone was quite accepting. I thought I could learn to talk like that, too, and that's when I started to lose my shyness.

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