Something of a follow up to my last post on Introversion, found here.
I saw this sign hanging in the hallway of the fabulous school at which I work as a Tutor, a boys' school nestled in a crook of Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga, TN, and I was filled with the same tummy-gurgling dread as the days I saw it as a student.
Some Observations/Reactions Reflecting The Minds Of The Boys Looking At This Sign Who Will Never, Ever Say Anything About How Passionately They Don't Want To Attend But Will Go To The Advertised Event Anyway Because Nobody Has Ever Told Them It's Okay To Not Want To:
1. The first word that is designed to stick out here is obviously SOCIAL. It's in the biggest font, in all capital letters, and sits as a perched gargoyle atop a bizarre field of children Gap-kid-jumping. Kill me.
2. The event is Rain or Shine. There's no getting out of this, even with a last-minute rain dance.
3. Mixing and Mingling = not knowing what to do with my hands as I stand by the punch bowl and wait for my one friend that I know there to stop talking to people so that I don't have to talk to them too. Also, I really hope that no girls want punch because then I'll have nowhere else to stand and I'll just have to move awkwardly as my face turns the color of the kool-aid in the clear plastic cup in my hand.
4. Literally nothing about this poster so far tells me that I'll have "FUN!!!!," ESPECIALLY not having to pay $5 to just be miserable.
5. "Coed Games" sounds to me like the thing I'd be made to do if I got in trouble. "You've been such a bad boy; go and stand with people you don't know whose very existence terrifies you to your soul and participate with them in forced, awkward situations where you're made to participate in small talk and know when to laugh and OH YEAH, BY THE WAY, YOU NEED TO LEARN TO TALK TO GIRLS." They should have "solitary reading nooks" provided.
6. Please, please, at least make the list of events chronological. Tornado Tunnel (!!!) at 7:15 should come before Football Game at 7:30.
7. I just have to make it to 7:30. I can do an hour and a half. Yeah. I can do this.
Some people who are reading this are parents of kids who would think these very things, I absolutely promise you. Some of you are the ones thinking them.
I mentioned it in the hyperbolic, bolded bit above, but my least favorite thing about this is that the boys (and girls) with these thoughts on their minds have (most likely) not ever been told that the unparalleled dread they're feeling is not a bad thing. They've not heard that they don't have to be excited about it. They've never had the thought that their worth as a Middle Schooler or a High Schooler or a College Freshman seeing posters for Kappa Sigma mixers is not dependent on the enthusiasm with which they approach these (for some God-forsaken reason) over-joyous social occasions.
Reinforcement From The Mouth Of Babes
I was with the band in Panama City to play for a week-long youth retreat last Spring Break. The church that brought us in provided lodging for us around the corner from the students so that we wouldn't be bothered by them. They allowed us to eat with them in the cafeteria just downstairs so that we didn't have to worry about meals. It was honestly a lovely week (though Panama City is a hellhole, but that's a different story), all told.
Lunch and dinner, though, were studies in cafeteria chaos: hungry kids forming disorganized lines weaving between cluttered tables and overflowing trash cans and slipping on oily camp food littering the slick, flourescently-lit tile floor. The majority of us in the band are Introverts (lucky us, to be paired with such a squad!), so we found ourselves usually seated together at the end of one of the outside tables so that we couldn't be sneaked up on from behind or surrounded or any of that; lifelong habits that we probably don't even realize we do, yet find ourselves doing consistently anyway. We get approached by a bubbly Freshman, full of church camp enthusiasm. "What are you all doing over here?" "We're... eating lunch," I replied, returning her look. "But you're not mingling with us." "We're not, no," I said, and smiled. "Last year, Seth Medley mingled with us." "Well we're not Seth Medley." "But you can't just sit over here and just be introverted!" "We can't?" "No! You have to come out and be extroverted! This is camp!"
Actual conversation, recorded to the best of my recollection (I have 94% conversational recall. Bonus points for that reference). The conversation wasn't nearly as smug as that may have come across. We were joking around with one another and I eventually went and sat with a group of the kids; I conceded that I was there for them, so the least I could do is eat together.
I was 23 at the time and quite immune to the teasings of a Freshman, but the point is not that I was bothered at all by this, rather that I was amused by just how accurate a representation of the common perception hers was: A) That we could stand up and just not be introverted anymore B) That one of those options was preferable to the other C) That extroversion is the standard by which your seriousness about the Church is judged (topic for a WHOLE different day)
What Nobody Told Me
Back to the original point.
It was difficult, Middle School. It's a wriggling ball of awkwardness already, slimy with confusion and the difficulty of coming to grips with the fact that you really don't have any idea who you are, a quest which some never finish; further, for those who do finish, not until they're well and fully grown. But seeing that your peers are nervous about these social encounters feels good until you realize that glowing beneath their nerves is a warmth kindled for the butterflies of social opportunity. It makes you wonder why the same warmth isn't smoldering in your chest. You wonder why your nerves only mask terror.
Since mine was a school full of boys, I think that they had absolutely the best intentions in mind with the cacophony of coordinate opportunities available to us. There's no use raising intellectually competent boys if they can't hold a conversation with a girl, after all. Through the clearest avenues of my hindsight, we were never forced to go to these events - they were all "opportunities." But you went if you didn't want to be tossed into a pygmy trap the following week. If you did go, the social gods of your grade who consider notches on their belt the number of reluctant couples they can pair for a slow dance will hunt like feeding sharks those who will spend the rest of the evening trying to de-clam their hands and de-lump their throat just from the anticipation of being bitten. The smell of perfume rank on the unwitting boys' hands would remind them into the night that next time if they just wouldn't go next time they wouldn't have to avoid eye contact for just long enough to be able to escape without it being too early for lame people to duck out.
Nobody told me that it was okay to feel that dread, so I never mentioned that I felt it. Rather, I convinced myself that I was just wrong and I needed to suck it up and fake it, for we got told ad infinitum that "this is when relationships are built" and that "now is when you need to learn to put yourself out there so that you can make connections and earn friendships and establish a social identity." It continued to High School: If I was invited to go cliff-jumping, I went, because I was a man, and men jump off of things. If people were going downtown to gallivant about and they invited me, I went, for that's what High Schoolers do. It continued to College: if I was silent in my vacant dorm room and in recovery from a long day of Colleg-y things and the rest of the hall barged in and announced that we were going and I had to come, I went, for that's what College students do.
This is not me blame-shifting or even complaining, but merely calling attention to the fact that I think the first step towards a revolution is simply telling the anxious that it's okay. It's okay to not want to go to the "social." It's okay to eat in a restaurant or go to a movie theater alone. It's okay to want to read on Friday night instead of waste time downtown. It's okay to look at what looks like a stupid, rash decision that extroverts are incapable of processing as a stupid, rash decision, and treat it as such. Getting into trouble is a talent made admirable only by those who are uncomfortable existing in the quietness of a moment.
Now, do not mishear me: I believe that it's healthy to sometimes force yourself to do things you're not comfortable with, for it is how you grow and change and find things that you like and solidify sentiments that you don't. But we need to tell boys that it's okay to not want to jump off of the cliff, for the measure of your manhood is not the amount of craziness you get involved in, but the degree to which you remain true to yourself when everyone else has leapt. If you wish to leap, by all means do, but leap because the cliff, not your hormone-infused buddy halfway down, has called you.