Throughout my elementary and middle school years, the scrutiny on my shyness hung over my head like a storm anvil. My report cards were flawless but for that one comment that told me to ‘speak up,’ and my parents heard the same suggestion at every conference that it became a mantra we’d laugh about at the dinner table.
In my mind, they were whispers that trailed behind me like accusing shadows. I’d always hoped that the stigma on introversion would disappear in high school. During elementary school, I was aware of the disapproval, and, during middle school, that awareness grew increasingly glaring. During high school, however, the stigma only strengthened.
The culture in America places a high value on those who are gregarious and charismatic and looks down upon those who are more understated and reflective. People inaccurately correlate being a good speaker with being intelligent, and this trend prevails heavily in education. With each year, the fixation on being outgoing and verbal becomes more pointed, dismissing the entire other portion of the population. Even class curriculums are inadvertently based on extroversion.
Working cohesively as a team is an integral part of being a successful individual, but so is thinking with your own inner voice.
As I matured, group projects became more common than independent ventures. There were more class discussions than singular analyzing, and, for me, that was a nightmare. My English class during freshman year consisted of thirty students all talking over each other and blurting out asinine ideas. That was an Honors class. We are urged, and often times forced, to partner up. Working cohesively as a team is an integral part of being a successful individual, but so is thinking with your own inner voice. I can always sense the awkward disparity and the subtle judgment when I choose to work alone — even when pairing up is optional. There are hundreds of studies and articles on this phenomenon. There’s even a full-fledged best seller that mentions today’s slanted education by Wall Street Lawyer Susan Cain, titled Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
Yet, what many don’t seem to realize is the profound emotional repercussions of this bias. Being defined as the Quiet One, which wasn’t exactly a glowing endorsement, led me to reject my natural tendencies instead of embracing them. It fed my insecurities, and, instead of blossoming into myself, I experienced internal battles on a day-to-day basis. For example, I would force myself to public events instead of staying home with a novel, and in the end, come back to my room feeling completely drained. The ‘well-meaning’ suggestions to speak up only ever backfired, shoving me further into my mind.
During middle school, my interest in reading and writing started to really climb. I began to, albeit naively, expect my English teacher to pay some special attention to me. I had watched a movie where a teacher recognized the potential in one of her students and played a major role in nurturing that potential. He preferred to shower his attention on those who were more outgoing, despite the fact that they were actually lazy students. Although I shouldn’t have expected him to notice me, what really got to me was the reason behind his — and my other teachers’ — favoring.
It wasn’t those that were especially conscientious, which would make sense. It was, simply, those who talked the most that experienced the teachers’ good sides and were handed the superficial awards of Top Student.
Students can get better grades, and they can improve bad behavior. But how do you tell someone they need to change who they are?
I felt ridiculed and invisible. I was not radiant, forceful, dominant, or energetic. I was not the sun. I thought: I will never achieve the same level of greatness because my introversion is defective, and I will be barred from success for reasons that go against the very core of me. There is something wrong with me, they said. There is not, I replied. My voice got drowned out among the sea of those who proclaimed otherwise. Years of this schooling caused a deep psychic pain. Students can get better grades, and they can improve bad behavior. But how do you tell someone they need to change who they are?
Somehow, I managed to strive anyways, thanks to pieces such as the aforementioned Quiet by Susan Cain and best friends who accepted me. I learned to take advantage of my introversion because it gave me a quiet but strong perseverance and the ability to plan efficiently. I am even one of the heads of a couple clubs I’m passionate about, which was something my prior self never dreamed of doing. However, the path was hard and much more turbulent than it needed to me. Even though I am stronger for it, my experience was problematic, and I’m not the only one.
School should emphasize the values of both extroverts and introverts. Education should enhance an individual’s best qualities, not alter.
There are millions of adolescents in the U.S. who are suffering under the expectation to be more extroverted. Yes, I completely recognize the importance of communication and interaction. I am not downplaying extroverts at all, as they exude unparalleled warmth I love to be around, but the potential in introverts is too-often dismissed in the education system. By shaming them, you rob the world of a future poet, scientist, trailblazer. You rob the world of a future Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Bill Gates. School should emphasize the values of both extroverts and introverts. Education should enhance an individual’s best qualities, not alter.
Photo: Bethany Legg