It's tough to be an introvert in an extrovert world, especially in an extrovert's profession, like teaching. Through this blog, I'd like to share my own and others' reflections on being an introvert in the classroom. This isn't a place for misanthropes or grumps, though; I hope to thoughtfully discuss the challenges that introverts face in schools and celebrate the gifts that introverted teachers and students bring to the educational environment. If you can relate, please join me!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Let's buy potholders now.

After having read in "Why Teaching Is Harder Than It Looks" the words, "You measure inspiration 25 years later when that hot-shot doctor, or lawyer, or entrepreneur thanks her fourth-grade teacher for having faith in her and encouraging her to pursue her dreams," I thought, yikes. Yes, of course, I knew this, but seeing it written out in black and white was something else. Sometimes, just wrapping up a semester feels like it takes an eternity.

If you are like me, as soon as school ends, you feel compelled to seek out instant gratification by obtaining or reorganizing concrete objects. When you work with minds and live a life in the mind, there are usually no visible signs of progress. So, a few times a year, I just have to go nuts. When a simple, concrete, uncomplicated goal arises, I have to pursue it with a vengeance. Husband has burned off the corners of current potholders? OK. Must. Buy. New. Ones. Now. How late is Bed, Bath and Beyond open? The straightforward prospect of immediate, tangible success is irresistible.

One summer, I asked a colleague if she, too, felt oddly compelled to tackle home improvement projects as soon as school got out. "Oh, yes. I just re-did both my kids' rooms. I found a horse lamp on Amazon.com!"

I've read things to the effect that extroverts are more likely to seek out instant gratification because they have better dopamine receptors or something like that so the gratification they feel is actually better. Figures. Sigh. Despite this, I just wanted to point out that sometimes we introverts need our instant gratification, too.

So, go ahead. Indulge. Buy those potholders and horse lamps, introverts.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Ophelia and the Extroverts

Within one week, I saw a production of Hamlet and read a recent Wall Street Journal article reluctantly telling introverts that one way to be happier may be to act like extroverts. Of course, I had to combine the two seemingly disparate experiences into a reflective blog post. Did you expect any less of me?

Sitting in the dark on a blanket in the grassy dirt of Kingsmen Park, it occurred to me that, as Queen Gertrude was telling Hamlet the story of Ophelia's drowning, there was no mention of anybody trying to help her (Ophelia). Gertrude seemed to luxuriate in telling how Ophelia's robes alternately buoyed her up before dragging her down, but she never says anything about calling for help. Did anyone think of going for a rope or a a tree branch or of throwing their own robes out Rapunzel-style? To my thinking, if there was enough time to watch Ophelia sing old songs and for her clothes to fully soak, perhaps there was some time for someone to have done something. And of course, there is the fact that we the audience don't even see the drowning itself; we are only told about it by the jabbering queen. Ophelia's death becomes less about Ophelia's suffering than about the drama queen's telling of it.

In an extrovert-dominant culture, extroverts are always trying to tell introverts' stories. Advice, however well-meant, that starts with "Act Like an Extrovert!" is not going to go over well with us. The article's author and interviewees speculate as to why acting like an extrovert may sometimes feel good to introverts. One possible explanation is that introverts worry that they'll be humiliated at, say, a party, and when they're not, they breathe a sigh of relief and have a good time. Maybe...

The real explanation, I think, why introverts may feel happy, exhilarated even, by acting like extroverts is because it is exciting to finally be listened to. Acting extroverted is often the only way we can get attention. So, it's not the extroverted behavior that makes us happy; rather, it's being listened to that makes us happy. We will endure the draining extrovert act demanded of us if it means we finally get to share what makes us passionate. (I think that's how so many bookworms like me ended up as teachers.)

Remember, introverts don't like isolation; they like quiet thinking time, but not all the time. (Remember my yoga post? There's such a thing as too much introspection, even for us.) The rest of the time we like to speak in deep and sustained conversations with one or two close friends at a time.

Ophelia's drowning is an extreme metaphor; we introverts are usually not suffering that much. But sometimes we do feel invisible because we're easy to ignore when we don't act like extroverts. So, if you see a nearby introvert fading away, throw them a line. But don't make the lifeline one which involves the introvert going out to parties or clubs with you. Instead, just sing some old songs with me as we float in the stream.

Friday, July 19, 2013

"I don't even want to open a freakin' book."

I remember a fellow grad student at CSUN, whose bluntness used to both intrigue and flummox me, giving me this line as a description of how she felt after a day of teaching. For introverts, it's simply exhausting. The definition of an introvert is someone who gets energy from inward thoughts, and when you have to be outwardly focused all day, this is draining. While extroverts get pumped up from being the center of attention, we introverts get tired, even though we care deeply about our students and like what we are doing.

But I think what my classmate was saying goes further than being too exhausted to read or write. I think it has to do with mentally switching gears. Admittedly, I have OCD, so switching gears is not my strong suit, but recently a person without OCD confirmed to me that we feel that if we immerse ourselves into the world of thought one evening, we find it harder to "be fully present" with our students the next day. We're preoccupied with that world in our minds that we opened up and delved into, and our thoughts keep wandering back to that other place.

Beyond being "somewhere else" psychologically, I also felt vulnerable. If I looked deeply into my own or someone else's thoughts by writing or reading, and then the next morning had to face the feisty fifteen-year-olds, I felt oddly exposed, like I was wearing all my emotions on my sleeve.

I bet most of us English teachers have had a colleague say to us, "I don't know how some English teachers don't read books during the school year!" and we nod and pretend we don't know either, when, in fact, we know very well. While it's fairly easy for me to switch gears now and I regularly devour books during the school year (I even started this blog in a November, one of the busiest months of the school year), it was a long way to get that point. It took about ten years.

When I first started teaching, I needed to stay ready for the next day of cultivating an extroverted version of myself. So when I got home, I tried to do things that would keep me relaxed and laughing. I didn't have cable then, so I had only a few channels, and one of them played lots of reruns of That '70s Show. To this day, Fez and the Foreman family are some of my favorite people.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Don't apologize, Sheridan Blau!

Sigh. I love it when dynamic speakers talk to us for awhile and then apologize for "lecturing." Sheridan Blau did just this a couple of weeks ago when he spoke to my "fellows" and I at the UCLA Writing Project.

I know why he did it (the apologizing). "Lecture" is a naughty word in school of ed culture. Should you even bring up the term, you must do so with a disclaimer. Lecture is so taboo now, that it's almost got the aura of "religion and politics," which my parents used to tell me not to discuss outside the family.

It feels like in  America now if you do anything for a sustained period of time (read, write, EVEN TALK), you are a weirdo. And should you try to push any of this weirdness on others, like your poor students, this is nothing short of cruel. Before you can say the L-word, you must be sure you're among "the family."

[Anecdote: As a high school teacher, I had called in sick at the last minute and my instructions to the substitute were only, "Have them read from their novels" for the 52-minute period. Upon my return, the students told me that the sub had said it was unreasonable of me to have asked them to read for that long. My response at the time was simply, "Who wants to go to college?" Most of my Simi Valley 10th-graders' hands shot up. "Then you're going to have to learn to read for a lot longer than that."]

Well, let me say this: "Lecture" is like any other medium. In itself, it isn't bad. Sure, there are bad books, bad poems, bad TV shows, and bad songs. But there are also good books, good poems, good TV shows, and good songs. When kids tell us they don't like books, what do we say? We tell them that, as one of my fellow fellows put it, they just haven't found the right book yet. Just because you hear a bad song on the radio doesn't mean that you give up music.

There are good lecturers and bad. Sheridan Blau's 20-minute talk, if it could even be considered a "lecture" considering that in the past lectures used to last for hours, was certainly nothing to apologize for. When he spoke to us, uninterrupted and funny, that was my favorite part of the day. What other way would he have conveyed his experience and his humor? We couldn't have worked in groups and "actively discovered" his personality. It's common sense; you pick the best medium for your message. People shouldn't give bad, boring lectures or lecture when there's a better way for the audience to learn the material. But people don't need to stop lecturing altogether.

Some say lecturing isn't active learning. During Sheridan Blau's talk, I was smiling. Sometimes that's active enough.

Friday, July 12, 2013

My Medicated Morning

I know introverts and highly sensitive people who do not need medication. Elaine Aaron has a great chapter in The Highly Sensitive Person about the idea that we don't want to medicate away these personality traits; to do so would be a form of discrimination. It reminds me of the analogous worry that too many young boys are being medicated just for being boys and not wanting to sit still from 9-3 (see the Atlantic's recent article on this here).

But, as I have alluded to before on this blog, I also suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. And for that, I have found, over the course of many years, that I need medication. 

Today, I thought of all the things I did this morning that I can easily and pleasurably do now that I have been back on medication for 18 months (for the sake of a hypothetical baby that I never got pregnant with because I felt so dreadfully bad, I had taken an 18-month hiatus after 10 years on medication):

1. I got up leisurely, feeling a bit tired, but not like the whole day would suck. 
2. I did not have to immediately rush to the bathroom to have nervous diarrhea first thing in the morning. Rise and shine!
3. I ate breakfast without feeling nauseous. I enjoyed my Shredded Frosted Mini-Wheats. 
4. I drove to the local shopping center without checking my rear and side mirrors every minute for stray pedestrians who might throw themselves at my car. 
5. I was not bothered by shadows or bright morning sunlight that make certain areas of the road less visible than others, and from which bicyclists and pedestrians might emerge unexpectedly...and throw themselves at my car. 
6. I made a purchase at CVS without checking to see if the checker's hands had cuts or using my anti-bacterial soap immediately after the transaction. 
7. I attended a pilates class on gym equipment used by other people. I did not immediately change or wash my clothes upon my return home. I'm typing this very blog in my workout clothes!
8. If the need had arisen, I would've used a public bathroom without hesitation and without re-envisioning, for the next hour or so, the whole trip to said bathroom and everything I might have touched. 
9. I stopped at PetCo without thinking of fleas. 
10. I'm excited for my hair appointment later. Now, I can go to salons, where other people have had their hair washed, too. Hell, I could even get a manicure if I felt like it! 

I know, you're thinking, Wow, way to live life on the edge, Diane. But what I love about being on medication is that now I do things that other people can do without a second thought but which used to be a major project and stress for me. And it was frustrating because I wanted to do those things but felt like I couldn't. 

One of the common misconceptions about medication is that it will change your personality and make you someone you're not. I wish I could tell everyone who, despite their intense suffering, staunchly refuses medication, that medication allows you to actually be more yourself. When I went on medication the first time, I found that I could study more and read more and write more because I wasn't constantly distracted by irrational and unwelcome thoughts that, for example, I would catch AIDS and die. My fear that medication would make me a less focused scholar turned out to be completely unfounded; instead, I could actually focus on the things that interested me instead of on the obsessions and compulsions. 

Creative people often think they'll be turned into zombies by medication. While this deadening of the senses is a risk with some medications for more serious disorders, medications now are a lot better than they used to be for those disorders, and the goal of the mental health profession nowadays is not to just sedate you into compliance. I have found that, with a selective serotonin reputake inhibitor (SSRI), I'm able to read and write more and be more fully present in my teaching and connect with my students now that my mind is not constantly distracted and exhausted by worry. I still have the same morals and values that I had before medication. Medication hasn't changed my personality; rather it has allowed my real personality to come through. 

You know how you're cranky and antisocial and exhausted when you have a cold? Even though it's "natural" to catch a cold every now and then, you want to have as few as possible. Your having-a-cold self is not your "real" self. You are no less of a good or strong person if you take a Day-Quil to stop your nose from running while you make dinner. When I had untreated, undiagnosed OCD, I felt like I always had a cold. I felt a fog in my brain that made me withdrawn and disconnected from others. 

I was born with a lack of serotonin and some other chemicals that keep my thoughts flowing. If I were born with a body that didn't produce insulin or some other chemical, no one would suggest that I "tough it out" without medication. Or suggest that it was my fault that I was not controlling the disease "naturally." Maybe it makes some people feel like they're in control when they refuse to medicate mental illnesses; but for me, it just made me feel like a failure. I wanted to do things I saw other people doing and which I thought I should be able to do, but I couldn't. Also, I knew I wasn't effectively hiding my disorder, despite my efforts to do so. I always knew I was different, and I knew other people knew it too. 

There are different degrees of severity in mental illness. While some people may be able to keep it under control by taking supplements, drinking herbal teas, giving up meat/dairy/wheat/etc., or doing therapy alone, not everyone can. To use the diabetes analogy, some people control it with diet and exercise, some take pills, but some others have to inject insulin. 

Please don't tell me to run farther and stop having chocolate so I can "get off my medication." It just makes me feel like I didn't try everything, do everything, make every effort to fix the problem "on my own" without "relying" on medication.

Don't get me wrong; the medication doesn't get rid of all my symptoms, but it does make them manageable. Also, I could certainly do without medication's side effects, like weight gain, dry mouth, and fatigue. But I'll take all of these any day over that feeling of not wanting to leave my house. 

I take medication. I'm me. And I love pilates, poetry, and professor-ing!