Beginning at 12, I internalized a truth I came to see as universal: Extroverts were better than introverts. I was on the losing team. I was the unfrosted side of a Frosted Mini-Wheat.
I had a simple choice to make-pretend to be an extrovert or fail. So I pretended. I didn’t pretend well, mind you. Acting has never been my forte, though I would have been loath to admit that during my fifth grade’s rendition of Hamlet in which I played the ever-so-pivotal part of the gravedigger. It was during that performance that I learned two important things: There’s really such a thing as a small part and that I was an introvert.
Our society exalts the extrovert, while trying to course-correct the introvert, the way teachers used to shame lefties into becoming righties. From the time we start school, we are taught that there’s a right way and a wrong way not only to be a student, but to be a human being. The right kind of person is gregarious, outgoing and flourishes in social situations. The wrong kind of person is shy, introspective and more comfortable by themselves. We prize talking over listening, leading over supporting and external over inner validation.
In middle school, my report cards began to read like bad fortune cookies. I was told I needed to learn to speak up and speak more and speak louder. And so I did. And I’m not saying these aren’t important tools, but for many people, including myself, that was not my natural way of being. And when introverts are taught to be extroverts, they start to see their introvert side like the bad side of their face — the side Tyra Banks tells aspiring models to never ever show to the camera.
It’s not just at school that introverts are encouraged to change. It’s in social situations as well. I’m probably the only person in my middle and high school who never went to one school dance. That sounds rather sad, but it wasn’t. The simple fact was that I didn’t want to go. But saying you don’t want to go to a school dance was a social faux pas that even I wasn’t foolish enough to make. (And I was rather liberal with my faux pas in high school. Like when, much to my sister’s chagrin, I wore a wig which looked kind of like Hannah Montana’s but faker to school for a week. What can I say? I was having a bad hair week.)
So I lied about why I wasn’t going to the dance. Along with being a bad actor, I’m a rather terrible liar. One year, I said I was grounded, which would have been a passable lie, except that my mother is about as dictatorial as Neville Longbottom. The harshest punishment she ever gave me was once putting me in a time out when I was six, after I said I hated Lucy Williams. Hate, you see, was a banned word in the Huffington household. We didn’t hate things. We just enthusiastically disliked them. I enthusiastically disliked Lucy Williams.
Another year, my excuse for not going to the dance was that I had I sprained my foot. So I spent the weekend practicing my limp.
I know that part of this was that I needed to get a backbone and own up to what I did and didn’t want to do, but the other part of it was that it isn’t socially acceptable to not want to do social things: to skip a party in order to read a book, to leave a dinner early because you want to go to sleep, to not go out at all because you want time alone. And not to do these things once or twice but to do them habitually. I do them habitually, but I do them with a fair degree of shame.
At Yale, the acceptable reasons for not going to things are even narrower — you must either have a midterm or the flu. I’ve never gotten the flu and my classes never seem to have midterms. So what that leaves me with is telling the truth.