Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to
Coyness is nice and coyness can stop you from saying all the things in life you’d like to
Dear Shyness, my old friend,
I’m pleased we’re no longer in touch, but I was reminded of you this week, while making visits to various schools. I met a small number of wonderful students who are well acquainted with you and it made me think about our old friendship and what you once meant to me.
The lyrics at the top of this letter – you’ve probably heard me using them on my own children – not because we listen to The Smiths non-stop in our house (ah, dream, dream), but because I quote them every time they tell me they won’t do a show and tell/perform in the school play/put their hand up in class. Every time they answer another adult’s question staring intently at me as if that other person is really not actually there. Or every time they won’t do something really, really great because it means ‘others will be looking at me’.
It might sound cruel, but I’m always on my children’s case to ditch your friendship. I wish the same for the small number of students I met this week. The ones who flicked their fringe over their eyes so I couldn’t read them; dipped their head low when I asked for answers; who waited till their classmates had gone before they sloped coyly over to talk to me.
Your friendship can suffocate and swallow people, Shyness, and I don’t like it. It brings back painful memories. It reminds me how I hated you, Shyness. With. A. Passion.
At secondary school our friendship was especially tight, remember? You turned me into that painfully quiet, red-faced, head-dipped, hands-down, back-seat lurker. Remember, how I spoke to my toes, mumbled, went red so often people would ask me if I were sunburnt (even amidst a Sheffield winter)?
Remember, how I adored plays and films? At home I would be forever acting out scripts (Bugsy Malone’s Tallulah – I WAS she). But I would NEVER, gawd forbid, never, try out for the school play?
And how about my first day at university – when I was desperate to join the student newspaper as part of my long-held dream to become a journalist? But that meant actually going in and talking to those cool-looking other students lolling and swaggering around confidently in the newspaper office? I never went in. I never became a journalist.
And how about the fact I never took a creative writing course, because that would mean reading aloud from stuff I wrote?
So yes, Shyness, I must concur wholeheartedly with Morrissey, shyness CAN stop you from doing and saying all the things you want to. And that’s why I don’t want that for my children, or any of the brilliant children I met this week.
But Shyness, everyone has redeeming characters and now I’m older and we’re no longer friends, I’m inclined to see yours.
For one, it must mean something that my favourite all-time characters are the shyer, quieter types. From Hardy’s Jude and Tess and Bronte’s Jane to Roald Dahl’s Charlie and James – books are filled with characters who skulk in the shadows of society not leap about under the bright lights. Shy people are heroes.
Knowing you, Shyness, separates a person from others. By not daring to speak or put your hand up; from fearing interaction or trying out new things, you soon learn it makes you feel different from everyone else – a painful walk along hot coals rather than pedalling along smooth tarmac kind of different.
But here’s the good stuff that comes from feeling different, Shyness. Because you muzzle your friends from speaking in public, they talk a lot more inside their own heads.
Because you prevent them from operating at full pelt in social situations, they hold regular parties and adventures in their own minds, where they can go truly wild.
And they read. Your friends read a hell of a lot.
So Shyness, here’s my theory and I reckon it’s an important one that I’ll endeavour to tell my children rather than constantly spouting Smiths lyrics at them (for which I think they’ll be eternally grateful). There’s a tension that exists in the people who know you well, Shyness. A tension between who they are deep down, behind the walls of their own home, crazy, cool and confident, and the person they are when they’re out there, in school and other public places.
I believe this tension ripples and roars and sends waves of creativity crashing into the shore of being Ordinary.
Because those who know you, Shyness, can’t fully express themselves out there, they start expressing themselves on the inside, in wild and wonderful ways – through their imagination, in music, art and writing.
So Shyness, we may no longer be in touch. Like the clothes that never suited me but I wore, cos they were like, in fash-shon, I have finally outgrown you, Shyness. But, like a virus that can inoculate – maybe shyness will do for your friends what it’s done for me – strengthen from the inside out and send them soaring through the sky, while they learn how to walk on the ground.
You will lend your friends a special humility, and skills of observation, a growing empathy and affinity with the outsiders of society, from which the greatest kinds of art can form and flourish.
In my book, Shyness…it’s those students I met this week, those outsiders who are your friends, who will always be ‘in’.
Nice knowing you, Shyness