Janet Sheridan: I conquer my shyness
At 15, I studied a small, black-and-white snapshot of myself as a toddler with unruly hair and a bashful smile, peeking warily from behind my aproned mother. “I guess I’ve always been shy. Why didn’t someone do something to change me?” as though a pill or bit of advice could have turned me into an outgoing charmer.
My mother taught me many important skills: how to sew on a button, burp a baby, and make cinnamon toast. She also gave me helpful advice, “Janet, it’s rude to grab the last cookie while you’re still eating one and even ruder to chew so vigorously you sound like a poorly played accordion.” But she did nothing about my shyness. In fairness, after years of listening to me jabber to relatives, siblings, and friends, she probably didn’t realize at the sight of a stranger, my tongue rolled over and played dead.
My sixth-grade teacher, weepy-eyed Mr. Wadsen, failed me as well. Every Monday, he taught the intricacies of good manners to his class of country bumpkins, often creating more confusion than enlightenment: Why should Blake open the door for me when I’m twice his size? And who needs two forks to eat dinner? Worse, he didn’t teach us how to converse with people we didn’t know, a lesson we’d need when we ventured beyond Lake Shore where we knew everybody.
So I grew into an uneasy adolescent, hampered by social awkwardness when surrounded by strangers. In waiting rooms, elevators, 4-H conventions, and extended family reunions filled with unknown relatives, I had no idea how to start a conversation, keep it going, and make a graceful exit when it lagged. More bearably, when cornered by an ancient uncle twice-removed with hair in surprising places, I didn’t know how to kindly squelch a conversation I’d rather eat worms than have.
Though I hoped to outgrow my shyness the way I discarded knock-knees and acne, I didn’t. So, when around unfamiliar people, I relied on avoidance strategies: no eye contact, no talking, lots of scowling, and frequent fits of coughing. When given a choice, I took the seat farthest from others, stuck my nose in a fat book, and left it there.
Then I went to college, the land of unknowns, and, tired of being shy, began to observe Carol Lee, my bubbly roommate, who easily started, maintained, and ended conversations with everybody who wandered her way. I may have been shy, but I was a quick learner. One trip to the student union revealed Carol’s secret: she smiled at people and asked easily answered questions. What a relief! I didn’t have to clear my throat before delivering a brilliant dissertation on bees, I merely had to smile and ask a question that didn’t require deep thought: How are you today? That’s a great purse; where did you get it? Can you believe this weather?
At last I knew how to avoid acting like an angry puppet who’d fired her ventriloquist.
A few months later, face unwashed, clothes unkempt, and hair finger-combed, I rushed into an airport waiting area, scanned the seats, took one in an empty row, and began to eat the sandwich I purchased during my gallop from Concourse A. Then I heard, “Well, howdy, Missy. I remember you. We were on the same cancelled flight yesterday. How’d you like the motel they took us to?”
“Just what I don’t need,” I thought with a sigh as a jowly fellow with agitated eyebrows, holding a cup of frozen yogurt with sprinkles, settled in next to me, ready to chat. Then I remembered my hard-won manners, turned to him, smiled, answered his question, and indicated my willingness to converse by asking another, “I slept soundly. How did you do?”
A shy little girl had come out from behind her mother never to return.