In a World of Extroverts, What Does it Mean to Be an Introvert at School

Social Commentary

In a World of Extroverts, What Does it Mean to Be an Introvert at School

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

There was pin-drop silence in the classroom. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on Ms Chhavi, as she read out from a Charles Dickens story. With a bad temper that terrorised the class no end, she reminded me of Fagin from Oliver Twist. I’d seen enough unfortunate souls crumble in front of our English teacher, and I wasn’t going to be the idiot who made a disruption. So there I was, trying to focus on the story, when my attention was diverted by the clouds forming shapes in the blue sky. Before I knew it, I’d drifted off to la la land.

“Stand up!” The barked order made my heart jump. Ms Chhavi’s voice was hoarse, angry, and it threatened consequences if I failed to comply. I got off my seat slightly lost and mostly confused. Her bulging eyes, red with fury, were too scary to look into, so I instantly looked away. She beat the duster on the table like a war drum and thundered, “Why were you staring outside the window?”

I was terrified. It felt like the walls were closing in, as she kept calling out my name and repeating the question. Everyone else in class was paying full attention to my humiliation and I stood with my head bowed down in fear and shame. Once the duster-banging failed to elicit a response from me, she lost her patience and ordered me to stand outside the class. That was the first time I found myself standing in the corridor all alone.

My only mistake: I did not have the courage to speak up. This continued year after year, and became the most prominent memory of my school life. Me looking from the corner of my eye at an empty corridor.

The stares I received from my classmates that day held me back for years from befriending them.

When most people talk about school, they talk of sharing dabbas, horsing around on the last bench, and hanging out during recess. The geeky kids reminisce the science project that won them gold, the popular kids remember the prom that won them the girl. Who does not have fond memories of school?

If your answer is a soft “I” then you, like me, were probably the occupant of the single desk in the corner of the room. As the quiet kid of the class, that was both the seat I chose to sit on, as well as the only one available to me. Every class has that one “weird kid” who sits alone when everyone else runs around during the lunch break, climbs the school walls ahead of PT class, or hangs on the handles of the school bus.

But I found all that chaos overwhelming. With so many children walking in and out of the classroom, I’d panic at the thought of whom to pick as my friend. And what if they said no. In my class, I was that one “weird kid” with crippling anxiety who’d hesitate to borrow a pen if his ran out of ink. Saying “hello” seemed like a mammoth task to me. I’d dread the day a new teacher joined school and I’d have to introduce myself or if I was asked to recite a poem in front of the entire class.

American writer Susan Cain in a TED talk on “The Power of Introverts” says, “Our most important institutions, like schools and workplaces, are designed for extroverts. Nowadays, your typical classroom has pods of desks, and kids are working on countless group assignments.”  

While extroverted children draw energy from those around them and thrive in these action-packed schedules, the daily school schedule depletes introverted children. They are left feeling over-stimulated, emotionally exhausted, and ready to melt down, a HuffPost blog titled “The Introvert in the Classroom” explains.   

In my case, my run-in with Ms Chhavi caused a similar meltdown. The stares I received from my classmates that day held me back for years from befriending them. I’d enter class and by force of habit gravitate toward the most remote corner in the classroom and observe school life from the security of my private bubble. From my solitary perch, I watched the classroom dynamics unfold.

The frontbenchers were invariably teachers’ pets. It wasn’t okay to sit on the front bench until you were equipped to effortlessly quote Shakespeare and bask in the glory. The mid-benchers weren’t geniuses, but destined for MBA and papa’s business – they formed their own clique. Finally, we had the last-benchers, the dream team comprising popular kids having a ball with their squad. It was an exclusive club, where once you gained access, you’d never eat, pee, study, or breathe alone. Friends forever, amirite?

And then there was me. The silent kid is like that chapter on trigonometry. He is forgotten in less that a year after passing from school.

School lapsed into summer holidays in a continuous cycle, and year after year, I remained an island in the classroom. Until one day in Class 8, I walked into class and found my precious corner seat occupied by a last-bencher. Getting my seat back meant talking to another human, so I wound up next to a boy called Rahul instead. Sharing a desk with someone for the first time in eight years was as strange as discovering your school teacher on Tinder. But the last-bencher refused to leave and I came to terms with having a desk partner. I’m guessing that’s what arranged marriages feel like.   

For the first few days, it was Cold War. Conversation, when it took place, was a struggle. However, nothing unites students like a hatred for trigonometry, and during an excruciatingly difficult math test, I reluctantly asked Rahul for help.

It took the spectre of a failing grade to make me let go of my prolonged fear, but it felt good. Soon, we began chatting about things other than what class is next and did you understand that Eliot poem. I no longer had to sit alone during lunch. At last, I had found someone with whom I could share my dabba and corny jokes. School didn’t feel so awful anymore.

The butterflies that thrived in my stomach for the past eight years slowly disappeared. So did my shyness. I became comfortable with myself. I learnt when to butt in and drop a one-liner during a conversation and when to be quiet. I learnt that I was an introvert in a world full of extroverts. And that we take our time, but we shine.

I just wish someone had told Ms Chhavi that.