An Introvert’s Lessons From Elementary School

Two introverted children walking outside

Starting school was a baffling experience for me. Except for the occasional birthday party, it was the first time I had ever been around so many kids my age.

It was another era, before schools fully adopted the “extrovert ideal.” Instead of pushing quiet kids to talk more, most effort was aimed at getting loud kids to be quiet — and failing miserably. My elementary school days were a battleground, a raging war between noise and quiet, running and walking, jumping around and sitting still.

Having skipped kindergarten, I jumped into first grade unprepared for this war. Inside the classroom, the teachers spent much of the day shushing us and telling us to sit down and pay attention. We traveled everywhere in lines, just to be kept in order. The cafeteria was patrolled by teachers walking up and down the aisle shushing and yelling at us to quiet down and behave.

Their efforts had little success. Or so I thought, until a few times, when for some reason, they didn’t do it. Without opposition, the excitement would build upon itself until the noise exploded into the stratosphere. Some kids would even get up from the tables and run about screaming and throwing food.

Why Do They Do That?

Loud and rowdy were allowed only at recess, and there were several of these throughout the day. But it was never enough for the kids — that is, for the other kids. As a quiet introvert, I was truly baffled by them.

I couldn’t understand why they would never stop talking. The constant banter, squealing, hamming, and horseplay just pushed me away. Why did they do that? Why did they like that?

I remember particularly the game where we would all be lined up outside the classroom after recess, and one kid would come running up to the end of the line and crash into the next kid so hard we would all fall into each other like dominoes. Everyone else would laugh and squeal.

But I hated it. Why would anyone like being shoved?

Conversely, I liked what they hated. When we were being punished, usually for someone talking or running around in class, the punishment would be for the whole class to spend the first five or ten minutes of recess inside with our heads down on our desks and mouths closed.

I loved those “punishments.” It was always a relaxing break to dream and reflect.

But many of the other kids squirmed as if in agony. Sometimes they could not restrain themselves and would start whispering to each other in secret. Then they would get carried away and break out in a giggle — resulting in an extension of the “punishment.”

Fortunately, there were usually a few other kids like me in every class hanging out on the margins — and the bottom of the social ladder. If not friends, we were at least allies, sitting together quietly in the cafeteria and hanging out together on the playground during recess — kind of like refugees.

No Place Like Home

The biggest thing I learned in elementary school was that there was a difference between home and everywhere else. My house had always been a peaceful place full of calm people. It was comfortable and made sense to me.

But home ended at its door and everywhere else was not comfortable — it was a land ruled and populated by loud kids I could not connect with.

So I had to figure out what their culture was and how to survive in it. As a military child, this was no different than the rest of life. Moving every few years brought a new school, new kids, and a new culture.

The one thing that didn’t change was the dichotomy between home and the rest of the world. The other kids, on the other hand, seemed to regard the entire world as “home.”

Indeed, wherever they could gather together, time and place seemed to vanish. The non-stop talking and hamming would make the excitement build until they would disappear into a bubble and float off to some other universe. Then it didn’t matter whether they were in Texas or Japan, on a playground or in a classroom — what mattered was the excitement in the bubble.

Though we all calm down as we grow older, I notice the same phenomenon among adults. Talking generates excitement, which leads to louder, more excited talking. The more participants, the greater the excitement  — until the bubble gets formed and planet Earth recedes into the distance.

I can only imagine that this bubble is like home, and floating in it in must feel like carrying your home around with you everywhere you go — making the actual location less important.

Sometimes I think it must be nice to have such a bubble. But I don’t. So in every group outing, I’m always the one with an eye on the clock or the door, trying to stop the conversation, burst the bubble, and bring everyone back down to time, place, and Earth, so we will not be late.

Which is why I avoid such outings like the plague.

All In Our Heads

While living abroad on several assignments, I had to learn a foreign culture, respect it, and navigate it while never accepting it as my own. As an introvert, I have to do the same thing in my own country.

The years abroad also taught me how much of what we assume is reality is nothing more than perception. For example, most Germans have never heard of Thanksgiving. In Germany, Thanksgiving is some weird little holiday Americans do on the base. For them, it’s just a day like any other. Thanksgiving is not an empirical thing in the universe — it exists only as a construct in our minds.

The same is true of our culture’s assumptions that noise, excitement, and constant talking mean goodness, happiness, and reward while quiet, calm, and a closed mouth mean gloom, sadness, and punishment. This was never the case in my house, and it will never be the case in my head.

People who have never found themselves in a different culture assume that their own culture is a universal, empirical thing. It rarely occurs to them that anyone, anywhere, may think differently.

But they’re wrong. Culture is all just a universe in our heads. And in my universe, silence will always be golden. 

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Beverly Garside is a novelist and screenwriter. As well as writing, she enjoys painting, tropical fish, reading, and making her cat happy. She lives with her husband in Maryland.