Students at individual desks, socially distanced, each in a plexiglass guarded universe. No friendly tables at which to gather with peers for shared instruction. No moving about, no mingling. This has been Back to School 2020, a sad accommodation to COVID-19 health risks. But not so sad to some. To this grim scenario some students say, "Yesss!" Quietly, of course.
During my years teaching English to eighth-graders, I had a soft spot for my introverted students. They would slink into my classroom, finding in stories and language respite from the unsettling cacophony of the cafeteria or the nightmarish camaraderie of the locker room. I had been a "shy child" myself, so I knew their predicament. At St. Rita’s School in Brooklyn, I reveled in the anonymity of being in a class of 50 students, each one at a nailed-down desk. After our family moved to Bethpage in 1959 and I began fifth grade at Central Boulevard Elementary School, I experienced a terrifying prospect — friendly teachers. When one asked whether she could call me Toni instead of Antoinette, I nodded in moronic muteness. Well-meaning classmates adopted the name, sending into overdrive my anxiety at revealing this alternative persona to my family. The only "Tony" in our large Italian family was my father, who shrugged bemusedly at this strange suburban phenomenon.
Over time, we introverts would encounter less kindness and more impatience. We were often considered unfriendly and aloof. Peers might avoid us. Teachers might deduct points from the dreaded "participation grade." Our lowered eyes would be judged rude, our silences uncooperative. Few recognized that these behaviors were the result of a fervent wish to become invisible. Ironically, I was later hired to teach at my alma mater, where, thankfully, no one remembered me. As a teacher, I would meet worried parents. Is their introverted child socially stunted? Is there a remedy for preferring solitary work? Maybe therapy? It might take a pandemic to convince parents that a child’s introspection could be a gift that could benefit others.
In the age of COVID-19, the shrinking violets bloom. Like many others who have endured suffering, these youngsters usually display great empathy. They will look with kindness as their more active peers perform futile sky reaches while confined to their chairs. And while speaking out may be difficult for introverts, they are fine listeners. Safe at a private desk and not preoccupied with the stress of group work, they may happily see their peers seek advice from them. With this observation, they might learn to look their peers in the eye. They already have a talent for reading situations and body language, skills honed by a lifetime of avoiding humiliation. With a giant step out of their comfort zone, they might point out a classmate’s potentially embarrassing predicament. Instant heroes!
Their quiet authority became evident during an anti-bullying role play activity in my classroom. A student "bully" was required to pressure another student into joining a dangerous prank. The "victim" needed to refuse to cooperate. It was shocking to see brash students floundering. The introverts, though, had no trouble saying, "Stop that. I don’t like it."
May classrooms everywhere celebrate their poignantly pensive members as well as their gloriously gregarious ones.
Reader Antoinette Cennamo lives in Bethpage.