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SHYNESS

If I had to describe what I was like as a child using only one word it would have to be shy.

I was extremely insecure as a child, an introvert by nature, always highly sensitive to my surroundings and to the feelings of others, which made me cringe at the thought of being the center of attention for any reason. (It still does.)

So imagine my terror when I was told I would have to recite a speech from memory in front of the whole class for the annual speech contest when I was nine years old.

The memory of my first attempt at it is sketchy at best. I was one of the youngest in my fourth-grade class (I started kindergarten when I was four), so I was already behind my peers in the art of social graces nevermind public speaking.

I’m sure I was trembling, palms sweating profusely as I held them clasped behind my back as we were instructed to do, heart racing insanely as I opened my mouth and tried to speak above a squeak. I have no memory of the poem I chose that year, but if I had to guess, it would have been something from Shel Silverstein.

Somehow I got through it and was told to take my seat. The relief I felt was instant since it meant I would not move on to the next round, or god forbid the final round where I would have had to recite my speech in front of the whole student assembly before going in front of an even bigger audience of parents and teachers had I been selected as a finalist.

I remember my teacher assuring me that there was always next year, and so I shouldn’t give up, which had anything but a calming effect on me learning that I would be expected to go through this all over again in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade as if it was something for me to look forward to.

I loved poetry from an early age, so that wasn’t the problem. Nor was the memorization of it since I loved being able to spontaneously summon stanzas as though they were my own. To have had such rich descriptive words inside my mouth left me with a delicious aftertaste wanting for more.

When the following year rolled around, I tried again. And I failed again. I was still very much an outsider looking in, still acutely uncomfortable in my own skin.

My third attempt in the sixth grade was another flop. Still intensely shy, still terrified of being seen or heard.

My fourth attempt was in the seventh grade. As I stood before my classmates yet again, I thought of the advice Mike Brady gives Jan to calm her nerves before a big debate: imagine the audience is wearing only their underwear. I thought about it, but I couldn’t bring myself to imagine it. Instead, I imagined myself dressed in a suit of armor as I readied myself for slings and arrows that were sure to fly my way.

I don’t remember what I choose to recite that year either, but I do remember having the slightest bit more courage when delivering it, enough so that my classmates and teacher took notice and voted me on to the next round.

I would go on to become a finalist that year which meant I would have to stand on the stage front and center and recite my speech into a microphone in front of at least a couple hundred people.

I was terrified and have no memory of that night probably because it was so traumatizing for me. But I did it, and although I came in fifth of five, I felt proud to receive an honorable mention for my efforts.

The following year would be my last and toughest test. I was in eighth grade. I was determined to give it my last best shot. It was now or never.

I chose the following poem as my speech that year to be delivered with a unique twist:

Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,
It cannot hold you long.

In Islington there was a man,
Of whom the world might say
That still a godly race he ran,
Whene’er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had,
To comfort friends and foes;
The naked every day he clad,
When he put on his clothes.

And in that town a dog was found,
As many dogs there be,
Both mongrel, puppy, whelp and hound,
And curs of low degree.

This dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad and bit the man.

Around from all the neighbouring streets
The wondering neighbours ran,
And swore the dog had lost his wits,
To bite so good a man.

The wound it seemed both sore and sad
To every Christian eye;
And while they swore the dog was mad,
They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light,
That showed the rogues they lied:
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.

– Oliver Goldsmith,  (1766)

After I had finished reciting it for the first time in front of my class, I joked that it sounded better at home when I was reciting it with an English accent.

Everyone laughed at this, but I was dead serious. I neglected to tell them it was because when I said it with an English accent, it somehow made me feel like I was a different person. I wasn’t the painfully shy thirteen-year-old girl dying inside as she stood in front of everyone to be picked apart, I was a rebellious British girl unafraid to go for it.

“Shyness is the exquisite and vulnerable frontier between what we think is possible and what we think we deserve.” – David Whyte Consolations

I didn’t realize until that moment that I wanted to win. I needed to pretend to be someone else to do it, but I didn’t care, in fact, I relished the thought of being someone else if only for a few minutes.

When everyone was finished laughing at me, my teacher agreed to let me have a go at it.

When I was finished, much to my total amazement, everyone started clapping for me, or should I say for the Brit with a bit of a chip on her shoulder.

Unfortunately, when my eighth-grade teacher later conferred with the principal about whether or not I should be allowed to speak with an accent when delivering my speech, the principle, who was as strict a nun as they come, ruled against me.

The fearless Brit in me disappeared. I was back to being me which meant back to feeling the painful shyness I could not shake.

“To feel shy is to look five ways at once: to the beckoning new life in front of us, to the line of retreat behind us, to alternative possibilities of escape to the left and right, and in really difficult circumstances, the hope for a complete and sudden disappearance.” – David Whyte Consolations

I’m sure I looked five ways at once that night.

Five ways times at least five times.

Five ways can last five minutes or five hours.

For all my efforts that night, I took home another honorable mention. This time I came in fourth of the five finalists.

I would never win a speech contest. Not then, not ever. But never had I been so relieved to have that particular kind of test behind me.

Of course, I continue to be tested in other ways every day.

It is still exceptionally rare for me to feel comfortable in my own skin. One of the very few places I do is when I’m alone in the woods or when I’m underwater, which is why I try to walk or swim every day.

I have had my share of equally terrifying moments comparable to being on that stage all alone with nowhere to hide.

When being brave enough to confront doctors who think they know better. When meeting with inspectors of all sorts while building my house. When going toe to toe – literally – with my school district’s superintendent during a town hall type meeting to stand up for my rights as a mother who homeschooled her children.

Or when I’m called upon to stand up for myself in any way, which is still as terrifying as it was when I was that nine-year-old scared shitless little girl.

I am shy.

I will always be shy.

I will never be able to speak in public without looking five ways at once at least five times.

We all face unique challenges that make us uncomfortable and test us sometimes on a daily basis.

Having had the opportunity this week to reflect on the poem I chose all those years ago is what interests me the most now.

The poem is about hypocrisy. The mad dog is far less dangerous than a phony Christian. The man is a Christian in name only, rather than in spirit, he is toxic – and thus the dog dies from biting the man, rather than the other way around.

Yes, I am shy. That’s the way I am wired. But I am also brave in other ways. Despite how uncomfortable I still am being in social situations, my shyness does not change who I fundamentally am at the core.

It took me a long time to figure that out and an even longer time to be OK with it.

 

NEXT WEEK: SILENCE

About Amy

I am many things to many people. Daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, friend. I am a worshiper of nature on a journey inward, rewriting my story one word at a time.

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