March 27, 2018

AHMAD | Memories of a Former Shy Kid

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I used to be really shy.

I don’t mean that “kind of timid and not very talkative” type of shy. I’m talking painfully, paralyzingly shy. I remember coming home from elementary school with my throat dry because I hadn’t spoken a single word all day. My teachers used to pull me aside just to ask if I was okay. Honestly, I don’t blame them. I mean, what kind of second grader sits alone, avoiding eye contact with anyone, while all the other kids are playing on swing sets and slides?

The most unfair part of being shy was that I had no idea where my shyness came from. I didn’t go through some traumatic event that scarred me, I wasn’t bullied or made fun of at school, I didn’t even have a single shy family member. In fact, my parents always encouraged me to be more like my younger brother — who, even in kindergarten, was everyone’s best friend. But it wasn’t like I wanted to be shy. Shyness is like the catching a cold — nobody asks for it, but it happens anyway.

But unlike catching a cold, shyness can’t be cured in a few weeks. In fact, shyness plagued me for most of my childhood. A memory that has been burned into my mind and that perfectly encapsulates the extent of my shyness is what I call, the pony point incident.

My elementary school had a system of rewarding good behavior by giving students “pony points” (our mascot was a horse) that we could exchange for prizes if we collected enough. You could get pony points for all sorts of things — turning in your homework on time, cleaning up after lunch time and, my personal forte, staying quiet during weekly reading time. I don’t mean to brag, but a few months into third grade, I had amassed quite an impressive amount of pony points. Dare I say, I probably had the most pony points of anyone in my entire class. Then, one day, a girl named Jessica approached me and asked for half my pony points. Now I had never spoken to Jessica before, but I knew for a fact that she was not quiet during reading time. In that moment, however, she was completely silent, staring at me with her hand outstretched. There was nothing I wanted to do more than not give Jessica my pony points, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that. So, with tears in my eyes, I handed over half of my pony points to Jessica.

I’m telling this story to earn pity — although let’s be honest, it’s absolutely tragic — I’m telling it to get across just how much of a burden it was to be shy.

The older I got, the more my shyness began to cost me. Internally, I was always anxious. My heart would start racing if someone approached to ask a question, or if I needed to place an order. It was frustrating to know that the unimportant, daily tasks that other people didn’t think twice about would mentally and emotionally exhaust me. Externally, I felt like I was steadily becoming invisible. Not only did I not have very many friends, but other people just didn’t talk to me. This was, of course, nobody’s fault but my own. If you refuse to open your door, eventually people stop knocking.

American culture values confidence. Or, at the very least, it values feigning confidence. As any former shy person knows, shyness starts mentally, but it soon becomes all-encompassing. You dread everything from casual conversation to confrontation. You feel like you can’t do anything but experience life passively, living as merely a shell of a person.

Towards the end of middle school, I knew that I couldn’t keep being shy. It was ruining my life. One step at a time, I started pushing myself to do things that made me uncomfortable. I convinced myself that nobody was paying as much attention to me as I thought. And even if they were, who cared? It was time that I stopped letting the mere fear of judgment dictate my every decision.

Of course, it wasn’t like I was just able to flip a switch and suddenly become the self-assured, confident person I had always wanted to be. It was a long, long process — just as overcoming any psychological barrier is. There were many times that I was embarrassed or fearful about raising my hand, confronting someone or talking to a stranger. But as difficult as those things were, I always knew that they were a thousand times easier than handing over my hard-earned pony points.

Faiza Ahmad is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at fahmad@cornellsun.com. The Fifth Column runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.