I never knew a stranger when I was a child. I talked to anyone and everyone who would listen. My parents and grandparents constantly told me to stop talking to people I didn’t know. In fact, they often told me to be quiet. I was naturally verbal, so I was shushed quite often.
By the time I entered kindergarten, I was leaning toward the shy side, but still talked more than I should. My teacher wrote my name on the chalk board for talking far more than anyone else. I can’t begin to tell you how recesses I missed because I couldn’t keep quiet during class. I shared a double desk with one of my best friends, after all.
There’s nothing like peer ridicule to clam a person up, though. I remember walking up to a boy I liked at recess and telling him that he was very handsome. His response was, “I don’t like you. I like Renee.” Then he stuck his nose up in the air and stomped away because I was obviously bothering him.
I was crushed by the boy’s response. I don’t know what I was expecting, but an outright rejection wasn’t it. I guess I probably thought he would say, “thank you,” and then talk to me about his favorite TV show or something like that. I pretty much limited my conversations to girls in my circle of friends after that. It was many years before I spoke to another boy on purpose.
The country school I attended only went through 6th grade, so my class was moved to a bigger school in 7th grade. My class of 20 kids was suddenly over 200. I was terrified and became even more quiet. I wouldn’t talk in class unless the teacher forced me. I never asked questions in front of everyone. I made a few friends and widened my circle a little. I still count a few of those ladies among my closest friends today.
By high school I was disillusioned with life. I didn’t like being at school or home. I didn’t like anything. My life changed my sophomore year. I had a teacher who made us all sit in alphabetical order on our first day and gave us a lecture on being positive. I rolled my eyes and resented sitting through the lecture as had become my custom by that point in my life.
There was something different about this teacher, though. She forced us to participate in class discussions. She asked us what we thought of current events and how they related to us. She showed us videos on economics and explained the laws of supply and demand. We played finance games and worked accounting crossword puzzles.
She made us participate in real life simulations where we attended college, got married, had kids, or did none of those things. We set budgets based on the median wages for whatever positions we chose, found housing, purchased insurance, made grocery lists, and even invested in the stock market. We dealt with surprise dinner guests and could only use what we had purchased during our imaginary grocery shopping trips to feed them. We even had to transfer money from savings to checking due to unforeseen expenses like car trouble.
By the time I had completed her class, this teacher had changed my mindset and my life. I found my self-confidence that had begun to diminish that day the boy told me he preferred Renee. I participated in class discussions in my other classes. My grades improved. I started talking to people outside my little circle again.
Last year I walked into a writers conference of several hundred people where I didn’t know anyone. I chose a person, walked up to her, and started a conversation. I did eventually find two people that I had met before, but I didn’t cling to them like I would have in the old days. I greeted them and moved along. I made a few new friends during that conference and met many interesting characters.
I’m talking to strangers again. It’s taken me 40 years to return to that which was natural for me during my early childhood. I just wish I could recapture the wide-eyed innocence that accompanied my early chattiness. I suppose wisdom is better than innocence, though. In case you’re wondering, I’m just fine with people liking Renee more than me these days.
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