Sunday, October 21, 2012

unlearning shyness

When I introduced myself to the high school mock trial students whom I would be coaching, I said, "I am interested in being a coach because people once thought I was shy, but I knew that I wasn't.  Now I am here to help you unlearn shyness."

As I said this, I tried to control the shaking in my voice, because the fear was still there. Never mind the message. No matter the audience, the fear is still there.

Rewind and let me set the scene.

It was early September. We were going to meet the students for the first time this season. The head coach and a few other coaches and I left work early to drive through slow game day traffic around the ballpark to the foggy canyon edge where the school sits.

In the main atrium were young ones, some being slouchy, inappropriately attired old-person's-stereotypes-of-teenagers, with skateboards, who stared at us. There were eucalyptus leaves underfoot. Girls whose hair fell into the faces chased each other up a ramp. A trio sat on their instrument cases and looked about to break into a jazz odyssey.

"We are going to tear your limbs off," say their contraposso stances.
I couldn't remember the last time I had gone onto a high school campus when students were around. Maybe June 2004, my last day as a social studies teacher? I had to take calming breaths before going through the doors.

The moment the head coach entered the classroom, he was mobbed - mobbed - by mock trialers, who surrounded him and shrieked his name. They squeezed in for a peristaltic mass hug, then peppered him with questions about how his summer had been. With each returning coach, this same loving rigmarole. More mobbing, shouting, interrogation, and then more shouting. That they could keep this level of chaotic enthusiasm up for so long defied my understanding of physics. One girl had made glittery "Mock Trial Princess" sashes and distributed them to other girls on the team. Eventually they returned to their desks, which they sat in or on top of, and then shouted at each other and the coaches from across the room.

The room belonged to Ms. C., an English teacher, who had covered the walls with artifacts from foreign cultures and bumper stickers that read, "Television Is Drugs," "Feminism Is The Radical Notion That Women Are People," "Don't Postpone Joy," and "I love my country...but I think we should start seeing other people."

This was when I said to myself, Yesssssssssss.

Re-post from below. I loved teachers like this in high school.
There was the meet and greet. When asked to speak individually, the kids showed off different levels of confidence, the earlier clamor notwithstanding. Some upperclassmen boys knew how to grip and return a handshake; others were clearly mortified at the thought of introducing themselves to strange adults and ducked eye contact; the most nervous fiddled incessantly with the ends of their hair or tugged at the bottom hem of their t-shirts. We asked each to stand and deliver the most basic of introductions (name, class year, other extracurriculars) and some students defused their nerves by forgetting, or pretending to forget, what facts about themselves they were supposed to state, because nobody had taught them the skills embodied in maxims like Fake It 'Til You Make It and Go Big or Go Home and it was still easier aim for dopey likability with, "Hi, my name is X, and...umm, what was I supposed to say again??" than to risk failed sincerity, to stand straight-backed and say, "My name is X and I am a freshman in band." I saw glimpses of the gulf between who a kid wanted to be and who she felt comfortable being, and then I saw how a teacher could bridge the distance.

Rewind further back to a few scenes of my own shyness.

Two involve not being able to speak up on public buses when I should have.

Scene one: M10 bus, 2002. The bus barrels past my stop on 8th Avenue because the driver has missed it and I am too shy to cut through the loud Manhattan chatter to shout "Stop!" Instead I tug the cable for the next stop and walk the extra few blocks, loathing myself.

How did I end up in Washington Heights??? 
Scene two: Chinatown bus, 2001. I'm seated next to a quiet man until we reach the McDonald's rest stop. We pee, then get back on the bus after the break. The quiet man is not sitting next to me. The bus starts pulling away. I see we are getting near the on-ramp. I know we have left the quiet man behind. I start looking wildly at my neighbors, but none of them notice. I raise my hand halfway as if to call someone's attention, and make some guttural suggestions, but ultimately fail to speak. Half an hour later, the agitated instructions coming through the radio system confirm that some 20 year-old fool paralyzed by shame could have prevented the situation just by opening her damn mouth.

Another scene involves Palo Alto calling Northfield, Massachusetts, 1999. My girlfriend and I were both home for the summer. Her dad answered. We had met several times. "Is M. there?" I asked. "Yes, hold on a minute. Is this [Bananarchist]?" said her dad. I froze. Would I have to make small talk? Would have I have to explain why I was calling his (closeted) daughter so many times? Would I have to use words that white adults use, such as "how odd"? So I said, "Nope! This is not [Bananarchist]." But my voice has a pretty distinctive timbre because of the enormous sarcastic-looking mouth God has given me. Her dad paused. "Are you sure this isn't [Bananarchist]?" he said. I had no choice but to stick to my guns. "Nope!!" I try not to imagine what kind of pathological liar he thought I was.

Add to these all the times my face has reddened when I know that officemates can hear my phone calls, when I've read book spines at parties in order to seem preoccupied, the two years of college I spent without talking in section. My reaction to being cold-called for the first time in law school, during the Carbolic Smoke Ball contracts class, was to tug my sweatshirt off and get the thing stuck on my head (I continued answering the question despite the muffling); five minutes after the questioning ended I got a spontaneous nosebleed and ran out of the room clutching my face. In the final ten minutes of a middle school volleyball game I asked my coach to take me out because I thought I wouldn't be clutch enough to handle the intensity.

Of a volleyball game. In the seventh grade. For the B-team. Against Burlingame.
This ball represents failure.
I am still not as bold as I would like to be, but good God nor am I longer the drooping houseplant I once was.

So when I saw the mock trialers struggling with their introductions, my mind conjured a half dozen shyness unlearning techniques unprompted. I have a mental archive of them - for my own benefit, as exercises in case I want to do boldness calisthenics, and also because I feel a Promethean urge, probably based also in some self-aggrandizing, let's just be honest, to teach other people the things that have helped me. They range from the basics (like classic icebreakers, e.g. filling out bingo sheets with information about other students in the room or everyone answering an amusing check-in question, or simple unstructured socializing time) to the pedestrian (like shouting when a bus driver misses your stop) (reread for the pun, reader) to the experiential, off-color, wacky, and bold.

I want to arrange these techniques into a curriculum of progressively more difficult unlearning shyness assignments:

  • Visualize yourself owning everything you see, and approach the thing accordingly. 
  • Record yourself reading "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" with different accents. 
  • Moot a TV debate with a fellow student on a ridiculous topic (e.g. "What is better, pie or cake?")
  • Give a stranger a compliment.
  • Organize a party. Send a mass email inviting both friends and acquaintances (a.k.a. people you don't often casually reach out to) to it. Follow up with phone calls.
  • Wear something outrageous and don't explain anything when you get quizzical or hostile looks. 
  • Sing instead of speaking for the length of a conversation. 
  • Give a two minute speech without planning on the first quote you open to in a book of quotations. 
  • Phone bank. 
  • Do contact improv dance (with animal noises) for an audience.  
  • Canvass a farmer's market for donations to a campaign. 
  • Busk. 
  • Perform on a karaoke stage. 
  • Give a toast at a wedding. 
  • Gibbous peach to a friend, a classroom, a boardroom, a school gathering, a plenary audience, Star Search, etc.
And so on. The outcome of this curriculum is to become that person who feels comfortable exclaiming to the dentist's receptionist: "A cat calendar!"

There are similarities between these exercises and pickup artist, drag, and improv etudes. Advanced confidence has emotional valence - e.g. when you truly esteem your blotchy, flatulent self, you'll feel comfortable lifting your arms overhead while dancing - and insincere confidence smacks of sleaze, but for the sake of the uncomfortably shy person who wants to make the first step, let's say that confidence is mostly about the successful performance of confidence.

Om calls the goal shamelessness, which is the poet's way of wrapping confidence, comfort, self-awareness, self-love, and poise into a nice word with lots of pleasing hissing sounds.

I talk a lot with Om about this because at her current job she has built a team from nothing (literally, nobody) to a critical mass of hard-working, spirited goofballs, many of them in high school or college. Some were probably as shy as my shyest mock trialers when they joined her team, but they've all seemed to become people who can call strangers and have twenty phone conversations a night on the topic of same-sex marriage. The office is like an atom buzzing with electrons, which makes possible the random, momentary collisions that build special intimacy, stuff like eye contact with a raised eyebrow, questions shouted from one room to the next, ten minute couch naps in other people's offices, sidling past someone in a narrow hallway, joining conversations just to make one clever comment and then walking away. One of Om's staffers said the moment she realized she loved the work was when she was carrying telephones from one room to another. She accidentally dropped one on the ground, and before the clatter ended she could hear Om's voice from an office thirty feet away saying, "You're fired." Everyone seemed to be having fun doing the exhausting work of an electoral campaign. Both times I visited her office, her staff lingered late into the night, long after work hours, just to be in this circusy atmosphere.

It makes me think about how the unlearning shyness curriculum alone is not enough. You also need reciprocal support from people around you. There should be minimal judgment and maximum positivity, reinforced over time through multiple unscripted interactions. This is not a new concept. This is a team.

During the mock trial introductions, many of the kids used the word "family" to describe why they wanted to participate. They said that being on the mock trial team made them feel like they were part of a family. I noticed how the returning students roped in the new kids, who at first sat at the fringe desks but by the end of class had relocated closer to the core. It didn't take much to bring the new kids in, just smiles, nods, and other expressions of attention and affirmation from the returning kids.

Of course, Manny being Manny, I don't experience pleasure without an accompanying dose of caution.

Most of us (those socialized as women, at least) have experienced the difference between team and clique. I think it will take some coaching to keep the mock trial team from turning the support of the former into the crutch of the latter.

Your hair emboldens mine.
Recently I wrote Om after watching a different campaign-related presentation by a team-turned-clique:
I felt slightly disappointed with the in-group attitude. I felt like I was at a fraternity beauty contest where the message, in the form of inside jokes addressed to the other frat brothers, was that XYZ was cooler than Sigma Chi. I think some of the younger folks in the audience - the potential-frat demographic - might have been dazzled by the coolness, but to me it felt like a missed opportunity to build community, to include. Like, y'all think you overcame your shyness because your team had your back, but you're still shy if you're only bold when you address each other. Why didn't anyone teach you to mingle with the other regional field directors, hmmm? (Am I a turd for saying this about kids? I don't blame them; I blame the frat they pledged.) 
Om's response described how leadership could guide the culture of the team:
i love this statement: "Like, y'all think you overcame your shyness because your team had your back, but you're still shy if you're only bold when you address each other." (capitalization intact to preserve your business casual (how does one phonetically represent what happens when one tries to shorten "casual"? i need a linguist)). this is why i want to work with young people. i don't blame young folks for the lack of inclusivity, but i blame adults for fostering environments that replicate/emulate the same dumb dynamics that most of us have felt terrorized by. we should all know better. but a part of me also feels compassion--we all have things to unlearn. at work we talk a lot about radical welcome. i think you asked me what it was and i gave you a lukewarm, possibly sassy, totally unsubstantial answer, but this is what it really is: to radically welcome someone means to do everything you can to make someone feel at home in the space. it means conveying to someone that even if it's your first time in the space or your 100th time, you have a place here and i am excited to have you do this work with me. and it is radical because it doesn't happen often enough! all of our experiences out in the world tell us that we need to work our asses off to be accepted and included, or we have to have a certain kind of look, or charm, or intelligence. fuck that. of course you can sit at my table.
The brains! The heart! Swoon!

A few weeks back, the mock trialers went to a pizza party for all high school kids in San Francisco participating in a mock trial program. Recall memories of middle school dances and you'll have a sense of how awkwardly segregated the atmosphere was, this time by school instead of by gender. I burst with pride when one of the kids on my team went up to a table of kids from another school and extended a hand, saying, "Hi! I'm C! I'm from Q High School!" I wasn't the only person who noticed this. Pretty soon the rest of the kids from Q High School were prying conversation loose from the students from other schools. I deserve no pride because I have nothing to do with C's instincts. I approached her afterward and thanked her for modeling fearlessness for her teammates.

Monday will be the first time that I meet with my small group and start practicing in earnest. I get six hours per week for the next five months with the same few kids. I have Googled "how to help students get over stage fright" and bought a book of theater techniques by the improv guru Viola Spolin. I have begun drafting the questionnaire I plan to distribute to my kids on the first day (a mix of personality test and OkCupid questions, mad libs, and creative writing exercises). I am really, really excited to start eradicating unwanted shyness from the world!

Imagine crosshairs.


Rachel W. said...

Here is my tiny non-comment comment: my theater teacher used that very book in our classes in high school to help us unlearn shyness and feel comfortable breathing loudly and acting ridiculous! Good old Viola.

Bananarchist said...