My Teacher Made Me Ashamed To Be An Introvert

Image by susanrm8

Image by susanrm8

I love eating alone. Aside from the fact that it gives me a chance to catch up on my reading, it just makes more sense. Yes, eating together is a social tradition dating back to our cave-people days, but let’s think about this for a second:

1) Being “social” generally entails talking to another human being.

2) Talking when you have food in your mouth is considered rude.

Okay, so how exactly are we supposed to do both at the same time? Seriously, I can think of few activities that are as mutually exclusive as eating a meal and chatting with a friend. And yet, we love to mash the two together.

That’s why we end up with those inevitable awkward moments. You know, when someone asks a question at the exact instant you’ve stuffed a giant piece of food in your mouth. So, you make an exaggerated chewing motion as you nod along like a bobblehead, telegraphing the universal sign for, “I’d be delighted to answer your question as soon as I finish chewing!”

Really, eat by yourself. Then meet with a friend and catch up. It’s just more practical.

But this isn’t a treatise on why we should all eat alone. Instead, it’s a story of how I used to be afraid to eat alone – and how my high school English teacher was the one who instilled that fear in me….

I was always an independent kid. I had friends I would play with, so I wasn’t a loner by any means. Yet, I was just as happy doing my own stuff. In grade school, if none of my friends were free (or not grounded), I’d ride my bike over to the nearest shopping center, about a mile away. There was a burger restaurant there called Knowlwood that I loved, partly because they had awesome cheeseburgers, but mostly because cheeseburgers weren’t exactly on my mom’s list of Asian recipes. I’d order a burger and a shake, grab a booth, and scarf it down excitedly. Afterwards, I’d wander through the stores nearby or catch a movie.

I lost count of how many times I did this between the age I was old enough to venture out on my own (or rather, the age my parents determined I was old enough) and that fateful moment when I developed my fear of eating alone….

It was 10th grade English, and we were reading Catcher in the Rye. The class was taught by “Ms. Birch,” who was one of the more popular teachers at the school.

We got to a scene where Holden Caulfield sat down at a restaurant by himself, and we started discussing his solitary life. In an effort to help us sympathize with Holden, Ms. Birch asked the class, “Has anyone ever eaten at a restaurant by themselves?”

I was about to raise my hand. But then, I remembered that I was 16 years old. And when you’re 16 years old, it’s not who you are that matters – it’s how everyone else sees you. A nagging feeling crept into my mind that this was one of those moments that would taint how my classmates saw me.

So, I hesitated. And I waited to see if anyone else raised their hands first.

No one did.

Crickets might as well have been chirping. Tumbleweed might as well have rolled by.

After an ungodly long silence (at least, to me), Ms. Birch continued:

“I’ve only had to do that once in my life, and it was really uncomfortable. You’re just sitting there, all by yourself, while everyone else around you is talking to each other. So, you can imagine how Holden must be feeling at this moment….”

A part of my still-emerging identity wanted to scream, “What? I eat alone all the time, and I’ve never once felt uncomfortable. What are you talking about, Ms. Birch?!?”

But, I was a self-conscious 10th grader, facing a teacher I respected. So, I didn’t stick up for my own introversion. Instead, I reassessed myself. And in that instant, I had an epiphany. I realized that eating alone was a freakish thing to do. It was something only weirdo loners with no friends did. And I didn’t want to be a weirdo loner. For the first time in my life, I actually felt ashamed that I liked doing things by myself.

For the next 10 years, I never again ate alone at a restaurant. Or went to see a movie on my own. Instead, I became firmly convinced that the measure of my character was in how many people I had to share activities with at any given time. It was a hang-up I clung to for over a decade. It may or may not be a hang-up that still colors my decisions every now and then. (On an unrelated note… party at my place this Saturday!)

It’s only in the past few years that I’ve felt secure enough to unleash my inner introvert again, to admit that I like to do things by myself, and to enjoy my alone time without feeling like a social outcast. I know now that there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be alone. In a world where extroverts dominate, it’s not easy for an introvert to be comfortable with that.

Looking back, I’m not bitter at all towards Ms. Birch. And I totally understand that she was only trying to make a point. If she felt awkward eating alone, that was her insecurity, not mine. And yet, because I looked up to her, her insecurity became my insecurity. In trying to make a point, she unwittingly made me ashamed of my introverted tendencies. I wasn’t traumatized by her comment, but it certainly made me second-guess myself. For over a decade.

And I think that should say something to those of us who work with kids – not just teachers, but anyone who interacts with kids on a regular basis….

If we’re dealing with kids, and especially if we’re dealing with kids who respect us (but really, isn’t that what we all should strive for?), I realize now that we have to be so careful with what we say. We have to think about the lives we’re shaping with our words. Even a comment made in passing can be internalized. We may only be relaying our personal opinions and feelings, but these may be taken as gospel by a kid. And this kid may end up clinging to these newfound opinions and feelings like a… well, like an introvert clinging to his alone time. And before we know it, we’ve planted the seed for a lifelong insecurity.

I mean, who knows? Maybe some teenager reading this will start to feel ashamed to be an extrovert. And man, if that happens….

Karma, baby. Karma.

No, seriously. Extrovert… introvert. You’re totally fine either way.

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  • I’m as a matter of fact, eating alone right now. And I could not imagine a more enjoyable lunch. On the other hand, I equally enjoy lunch dates. It’s all about the timing for me.
    Unfortunately, I’ve had teachers who have projected their own insecurities onto me. Thank God for the good ones who made had a positive impact in my life.

  • I’m on the introverted side of the spectrum too and can enjoy eating alone with a book, even at a restaurant or cafe. At school, I prefer to eat lunch alone at my desk because it’s a break from being “on” while I instruct my class. You’re so right that eating with others, while enjoyable, can be awkward! The description of the chewing-nod is right on.

    As teachers, the power we have is so huge and intimidating. It’s amazing the impact a careless comment can have on an impressionable student. If anything, this story and anecdotes like it could make a teacher almost too self-conscious to function in the classroom! If you spend every minute terrified of psychologically screwing up each student based on triggers you don’t know they have, you’ll never say a word, and then how will they pass their tests? I sympathize with you for the hang-up your teacher unwittingly passed on to you, but I also sympathize with her for accidentally making a student’s life a little bit harder, when she surely never meant to do any such thing.

    • Oh yeah, I don’t fault her for saying what she did. I don’t think there’s any way she could have known how her comment would affect one of her students.

  • In 2012, I saw EVERY single movie with a major release at least once. And a bunch with limited releases (Ruby Sparks, Compliance, Farewell My Queen, Moonrise Kingdom, etc). Not once did I ever thought it was weird or strange because even though I was on my own, I never felt lonely and I never felt like anyone was judging me. As far as I was concerned, everyone else was living in their tiny world.

    On the flip side, you can be surrounded by people and feel like that piece of a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t connect with anything.

    It’s as you said. If someone thinks you’re a weirdo or strange remember that those are their insecurities, not yours.

    I like to think of myself as an extrovert. I like taking risks, I like meeting people, I like hanging out with my friends. But sometimes I just want to be by myself.

    Those who matter don’t mind and those who mind don’t matter.

    On a side note. Dr Hong, the 2013 SD County Fair is going to be from June 8th – July 4th. If you’re interested, I can get you a pair of tickets. One for you and another person you want to go with. Or you can sell them. It’s cool either way.

    I also might be able to get you tickets for rides. But I can’t promise anything on that one. It’s a big ify.

    If you’re interested, shoot me an email.

  • Well. When I dine out, I eat to experience — not just to eat. So I like eating European-style: slowly. Great conversation goes along with a great meal, but dining alone is nice, too. Either way, I’m going to enjoy it.

    Great point on teachers, though. I’m sure it would be hard to watch everything you say, but I guess in the end it’s important to teach kids, whether they tend to be more introverted or extroverted, to be comfortable in their own skin.

  • I eat alone all the time. Maybe it’s because my parents were always working and I was also kind of a loner in school. Either way, it shaped me to be very comfortable eating alone, and I hate waiting for other people who might be late while I’m starving.

    Time for lunch.

  • This article is funny. Something similar happened to me. I use to love eating at restaurants by myself. That is until one of my friends pointed to a woman eating by herself while we were together at a restaurant and commented how awkward she’d feel if she ever had to eat alone. I suddenly felt like if I ever ate a restaurant alone again, the other people at the restaurant would be judging me and talking about me like my friend judged the lone woman. Thankfully, because of this article I see that others may have seen me eating alone and secretly wished they had the courage to do so too. Because of your words I can now go to a restaurant alone again and eat in peace.

    • Thanks, Moni. I’d say that introverts should take a stand together and proclaim their likes and dislikes, but… well, that doesn’t seem like a very “introvert-ish” thing to do….

  • I ate lunch alone in the library all the time in high school. It wasn’t allowed, but because I read so much I got the librarian to cover for me every time. I never felt weird about it; it felt completely natural! I mean, what’s better than food in your tummy and knowledge in your head, right? But then I realized I was unwittingly hanging out with the “weirdos”, the people who even creeped me out to an extent. I realized that people don’t separate the creeps from the introverts, it’s all the same to the exterior world. I felt ashamed from then on, and I’d try my best to keep away from them. It makes me feel so guilty now…how I could label those people “creeps” just as the cheerleaders would label me the same thing. Labels are painful, man…

  • I LOVE your articles and this one really touched home. I was taught by extroverts, raised by extroverts, played with extroverts, and ended up being hired by extroverts. It was just (and still is a times) soo exhausting. I think we forget that a lot … especially for young kids. I try really hard to show respect for my young kids that I work with.. not putting them on the spot, not “making” them speak to strangers, and especially not having to touch (hug) someone that they don’t want to. Remember when we had to hug some long lost relative we never met, or go on about who our friends are and what we do all day? I wouldn’t do that as an adult. Why do we make our kids?

  • I love this article, Dennis!

    I always felt when I was in HS that you must sit at the lunch table with someone. When I was a young adult, I wouldn’t go to restaurants, or movies, unless I had someone to go with me. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20’s that I went to a movie by myself. I thoroughly enjoyed myself MUCH more!! I didn’t have someone next to me trying to have a conversation during the film, I could hog the popcorn; it was absolutely brilliant! Going to a restaurant by myself took me a bit longer. But soon, I would not just grab something to go, or eat it at the bar, I would ask for my table of one and sit in the dining area on my own. I could read a book, chat online, and enjoy myself on my own time without the pressure of another body being there. I love my friends, but sometimes picking my own restaurant is awesome!

    As a teacher myself, we always have to be careful how we address the needs of our students. There is nothing wrong with trying to expand their comfort zone, as long as we are keeping our classroom a safe place. The classroom needs to be our lab, where we allow ourselves and our students to experiment, make mistakes, and celebrate their successes. They do not know how far they can go unless they are given that opportunity. It’s wonderful seeing the quietest child, taking a chance and being successful, or even better the other students being supportive, and trying to help them overcome a barrier. I had a second grade teacher, that made me feel awful, over something that for me was an accomplishment. I still remember how I felt about that 30 years later. I know that my students may not remember everything that I said, but they will remember how I made them feel. We need to be mindful, and remember that our children come from all sorts of different situations, experiences, and how they internalize their feelings and emotions. It is a huge responsibility that we share as educators.

    That being said, I wouldn’t change what I do any day. I feel like I make a difference, and that is very rewarding! I love my job!

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

      And I totally agree, it’s very important to always keep in mind how the comments we make may affect our students for decades to come.

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