Writing 101: Serially Found, Part TwoPosted: October 2, 2014
My hair wasn’t the only thing I whined about when I was young; at home in the safety of my family, I whined about everything. In public, on the other hand, I rarely spoke and was painfully shy. I was the baby of four children, with thirteen years between my older sister and myself. My sister was beautiful and, having married at eighteen, had a family and just seemed to have it all together. My two older brothers were handsome and fun-loving and had lots of friends. Although intelligent and possessing a sense of humor, I was small, skinny, flat-chested and afraid to speak out in front of my peers in class. During the summers, I ran free and was a different person, but at school, from the Monday after Labor Day until the last Friday of June, I was pretty much a nonentity.
Oh, I had friends, but they were very similar to me. When we lined up in size places, as we did back then in elementary school, we were all in the first quarter of the line. In high school my social groups expanded somewhat, since I was involved in so many activities of the 60’s: civil rights marches, peace protests, folk music. I could talk with my friends, but in the classroom, I still had difficulty speaking up. One of my teachers referred to me as Cordelia in King Lear, because, when I did answer a question, my voice was so soft and low that I was hard to hear.
I carried this shyness with me into college and attracted other girls who were also relatively shy. My lunch partners were Mamie, Idelisse, and Monica, and we had great fun with each other, chattering about everything and anything, until lunch was over and I went back to my classes.
I did have another friend in college, though, who was instrumental in helping me to change myself. It is a sad testimony to old age that I can’t remember her name, though I remember her boyfriend’s name (he thought he was the reincarnation of Thomas Wolfe, but I didn’t think he wrote that well…). She was so totally different from me that it was amazing she became my friend at all. She lived on her own, not with her family like the rest of us. I think she was legally emancipated. She was friendly and caring, outspoken and sure of herself. We were both taking a seminar class for Psychology majors with Professor Austin Wood, one of the best teachers I have ever had. We read novels and short stories, wrote papers examining the characters’ personalities and motivations using our psychological glasses, and then shared our thoughts in class discussions. The class was small and informal, with twelve students. One day I had an unpleasant surprise. Professor Wood had written on my paper “see Elliott,” and had apparently written on Elliott’s paper “see Emily.” Of course I knew who Elliott was; in a class that size we all knew each other, or so I thought. What embarrassment and chagrin I felt when Elliott looked up and said, “Who’s Emily?” I realized that I had effaced myself so completely that I didn’t even exist for some of my classmates.
My friend and my professor together came up with a plan and presented it to me. Professor Wood would ask the other students to help me be comfortable speaking in class. He would propose that they wait a few minutes before answering a question, or first look at me to see if I had an answer, to give me the time to get what was in my mind out of my mouth. My part was to be willing to let them help me and to force myself to speak, despite my fears.
I did it. I took the hand that was offered to me, held on to it, and took the first steps toward building my self-confidence. People who have known me as an adult cannot believe I was ever quiet and shy because I tend now to be loud and outspoken. I don’t know whether they would agree with all that comes out of my mouth these days, but I doubt if my friend and my professor would regret their decision to help me, because, in that class, I found my voice.