A Shared Shyness
By Meredith Bland
I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was crying.
I sat in a big plastic chair at a desk so small that it hit my knees in my kid’s kindergarten classroom. I was working as a parent volunteer, doing some of the busy work that teachers don’t have time for. My son, his class, and his teacher were on the other side of an easel that stood between us. They were talking about a book they had just read. I couldn’t see my son standing at the front of the class, but I could see his classmates, all 27 of them, sitting criss-cross apple sauce on the carpet and waiting. For him.
“Go ahead. What was your favorite part of the story?” His teacher asked, gently.
“I don’t want to.” he mumbled.
“We’ve got all day. Just tell your friends what your favorite part of the story was.”
I sat there stapling handouts together with tears in my eyes. GRR-GUNK. GRR-GUNK. Just keep stapling, I told myself, and whatever you do, for the love of god, please don’t cry.
You see, I knew what my son was feeling at that moment. I was that kid in elementary school who shut down completely when I was in front of the class. I was painfully shy and refused to read any of my work out loud. Ever. One time a teacher asked me to read a poem I wrote about my cat, whose name was Snowball. I believe the title was, “Snowball.”
She asked me to stand in front of the chalkboard and read. I said, “No.” Or maybe I just shook my head. Or maybe I put my head down and said nothing at all. She sighed and walked over to my desk with her hand held out.
“Fine. I’ll read it for you.”
I panicked. I couldn’t flee, so I fought: I balled up my poem, put the whole thing in my mouth, and started chewing.
The class began to laugh, and I was sent outside to sit on the staircase till class was over. She called my mom, and when I got home that afternoon we talked about it. I told my mom what happened, and she said, “Good for you. I can’t blame you.”
I have the same approach to my son’s shyness. He’s shy. He has a right to feel whatever he wants to, and there is nothing wrong with it. You don’t want to tell my friends that funny thing you said the other day? That’s cool. No problem. I am not going to force you. When he hides his face or runs away or screams “STOP LOOKING AT ME,” I get it. I understand. And it’s okay. When he’s with me, my son can cloak himself in shyness and never worry about being forced to come out.
But teachers are not mothers and schools are not home. There are different expectations, different rules, and lots of “have to’s.” And my parenting approach of “be who you are and do what you do” doesn’t fly in a room with twenty-eight five-year-olds. Letting the shy kid sit down without speaking sets a precedent that does not work in a public school setting. It makes sense, but it’s painful all the same.
Every second I sat there, listening to the class silently waiting for my son to speak, I ached inside. Eventually, his teacher coaxed out of him that he liked “the beginning.” I kept my eyes on the story I was stapling together while he sniffled and sat down. I can’t save him from experiences like that. There are going to be more painful moments in the coming years, when he is no longer within my reach. But this time I was only a few feet away, unable to see him but feeling all of him. I wanted to tell him, “Hey. No big deal. I understand. Mommy was shy once, too.” But Mommy can’t always be there to rescue you in the real world. I was just a visitor there that day.
About five minutes later I finished my stapling, waved good-bye to his now relaxed little face, and left him in his teacher’s care. When he gets home this afternoon, I’ll hug him and tell him it’s okay. I’ll tell him that he is brave, kind, moral, funny, smart, and loving. I’ll tell him that I used to feel the same way. I’ll tell him about the time I ate a poem, and the times later in life when I gave four-hour presentations and loved every minute of them. I’ll tell him to imagine people in their underpants. And I’ll hope that he’ll have more courage than his mom and that this fear will, in the least, become less crippling. But if it doesn’t, it’s okay. I understand. I get it.
I ate a poem once.
Meredith Bland is a freelance writer and award-winning humor blogger. Her work can be found on her blog, Pile of Babies (http://www.pileofbabies.com), and on the humor site Aiming Low (http://www.aiminglow.com) where she is a staff writer.