You might think that, with a job like mine, I’d be an extrovert. Â I’ve taught thousands of students. Â I’ve given dozens of invited talks. Â I’ve done a hundred or so radio interviews, and have even appeared on TV a few times.
But I don’t come by extroversion naturally. Â It’s something I’ve learned to perform, a role I play, a character I impersonate. Â I’ve become so adept at this impersonation that, on those rare occasions when I’ve mentioned my native shyness, the general response has been disbelief.
It’s taken me a while to get here, though.Â It began, as many things do, in adolescence.
As a sixteen-year-old, I happened into a minor role – the Second Dead Man in Thornton Wilder’sÂ Our Town. Â The director, Terrence Ortwein, was my teacher for a “Theater 101” class. Â The student originally playing that role got expelled, and Mr. Ortwein asked me if I would undertake it. Â I agreed, memorized the part, and began to attend rehearsals, where I became an extra in other scenes. Â Though it was a bit nerve-wracking to be on stage, I also found that… I could do it. Â I went on to have minor roles in Spoon River Anthology,Â Grease, Oliver, and Rogers and Hammerstein’sÂ Cinderella. I lacked the confidence (and, no doubt, the ability) to land a major part, but I was glad to be a member of each cast.
I have no idea why Mr. Ortwein thought I could do it. Â Perhaps he thought it would be good for me?
It was good for me.Â Acting allowed me to a glimpse a different self.Â It taught me that I could discard the script I had been using and try a new one.Â When I set off for college, I decided that my tendency towards introversion was unhealthy.Â Thus, I would deliberately cast myself in roles that required me to interact with others.Â As a freshman, I ran for dorm council president … and won.Â I also applied to become a Resident Advisor, and became one of two sophomore RAs the following year –Â a job I held through my senior year.Â I joined the Arts Committee (a student group), and became president of it for a year, too.
In each case, I figured that the job would force me to rise to the occasion. Â It did.Â Inhabiting these new roles wasn’t easy: I had no leadership experience whatsoever. Â But I managed.Â Though this seems silly to me now, for each of those dorm council meetings, I would print upÂ and then photocopy an agenda.Â Having an agenda gave me a script.Â It helped me to perform.
Learning to teach was much harder.Â I say “was,” but I should probably say “has been” because it’s something I’m still learning to do.Â (And I hope I’m getting better at it!)Â Teaching was and is harder because it can’t all be acting.Â It also has to be you.Â You have to develop a teaching persona that’s a version of yourself –Â the classroom version.
I’m sharing this personal narrative because I sense that many “book people” –Â in which I include academics, librarians, writers, artists –Â are introverted, or at least tend in that direction.Â Yet, as Morrissey sings in the Smiths’ “Ask,” “Shyness is nice, but shyness can stop you / from doing all the things in life you’d like to.”Â So, many of us bookish folks have learned to perform a more extroverted version of ourselves.Â Indeed, we might even create such a successful “confident” persona that most people would be surprised to learn that they’re talking to a naturally shy person.
One of the most liberating things I learned in college was that, although psychologists study personality, it’s nearly impossible to prove that such a thing as “personality” exists at all.Â This insight affirmed my sense of the self as malleable: you may feel shy or insecure, but you don’t always have to be that way.Â You can change.
Years of acting have changed my personality.Â I’ve become more extroverted.Â I enjoy socializing.Â I like giving talks.Â But I’m also glad when the talk finishes, the party’s over, and I can go home again.