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Monday, March 28, 2022

My Life as a Turtle by Bea Tifton


I'm filling in for the lovely and talented Beth Trissel.

I’ve always been shy. When I was a child, I was painfully shy. And painful it was. Like hate-seeking missiles, the bullies found me every time. I would hang back at times, sort of wanting to do something but really not wanting to call attention to myself.

My well meaning mother made me go to a dance at church one night, and during the dance, one girl took the microphone and started singing along with Blondie. My affable but dim youth sponsor said, “Don’t you wish you could be more like her? Don’t you wish you were popular? You should be more like that.” No and no. He did teach me to dance, though.

I was in several choirs along the way. I always loved to sing. When I was singing, something happened.

The sheer joy of creating music overrode my often crippling shyness.  Singing took my full concentration and I lost myself in it. In high school I also took drama, and it was the same thing. I just lost myself in the roles during class and the few times I appeared on stage.  

When I became a teacher, I knew I had to do something. I would have to talk to the students and, gulp, their parents, without hesitation.   So, I drew upon my drama experience. I assumed the role of a fourth grade teacher. It worked. Teaching was like singing. It took my full concentration so I forgot to be shy.  I became able to chit chat with parents. I still had trouble in social situations, though. But I would draw upon my inner star. I have a wry, but often silly sense of humor, and I was able to make people laugh. I love telling stories, of course, so I was able to do so as well. I don’t mean I was being fake.  I just had to use the technique to get me started. I was actually being myself as I was to my friends all along. 

I had one particularly obtuse fellow teacher on one of my teaching teams. She was a former cheerleader, loud and attention seeking, and not particularly empathetic or sympathetic. Blond and blue eyed, busty and well dressed. But um, not very nice. I couldn’t stand her. Since we had to work together, I was pleasant and patient with her. I truly don’t think she ever realized how I really felt. We got along well enough.  Once when we were having a meeting after school, I said something that made the other teachers laugh. She said loudly, “Oh, look. That’s great. Bea’s coming out of her shell.”  Ugh! I remember thinking, What am I, a turtle? 

Sometimes, shyness is mistaken for snobbery. Years ago, many psychologists thought that shy people were selfish. Not sure how they got that, but okay. One theorist proposed that being shy was actually in itself an attention seeking behavior. That seems counterintuitive, but common sense is not a flower that grows in everyone's garden. Now researchers have discovered what they believe to be a shyness gene. It's like having hazel eyes instead of blue, part of a person's genetic makeup. 

I’ve known so many shy people who were wonderful once I got to know them. Many brilliant performers are shy in their personal lives. There’s no reason to pity shy people, or to underestimate them. For one thing, since we listen rather than talking all the time, we know many different things.

 I have a great life, full of volunteer opportunities to help the homeless, a passion of mine, trips to the museums in my city, and other activities with friends who laugh at my jokes and never thought I had a shell in the first place. If you see someone hanging at the fringes of the conversation or hesitating, reach out and be patient.  Just don’t call them a turtle.

 Photo credits: 

Child Reading: Mikhail Nilov
Disco Ball: NEOSiAM 2021
Turtle: David Dibert
Hazel Eyes: Craig Adderley
Little Girl Dancing With Little Boy: Public Domain


  1. Sometimes it's hard to recognize shyness, and subsequently hard not to be hurt by what feels like a shy person's disdain. I enjoyed your post. It's very thought-provoking. I'm somewhere between you and the "obtuse fellow teacher" on the scale. I suppose none of us are as comfortable or as accepting as we should be.

  2. I was painfully shy as a small child. Later, I was able to hide it most of the time. More than one person has told me they thought I was a snob until they got to know me. It's a trait that's often mistaken as something else. Good post!


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