I always worked very hard at school and did well academically. However, although I was quite chatty with other classmates, I never raised my hand in class or spoke to any of my teachers. My school reports always said something along the lines of “she is very conscientious but needs to contribute more to class discussions.” I wasn’t fazed by this recurring statement; both I and my parents knew that I was not shy at heart. And I believed that in a situation where I really needed to ask my teachers for help, I would be able to.
However, when it came to exam time and I found myself struggling with maths, I actually found it very difficult to muster the courage to approach my teacher. When, finally, I knocked on his door, the entire encounter was very awkward. I stumbled on my words and when my teacher began to explain the maths question my heart was beating so fast that I couldn’t actively listen to any of what he was saying. Then, instead of telling him I didn’t understand, I bolted out of there as quickly as I could and spent the next week obsessing over how awkward and weird he probably thought I was.
Despite multiple situations like these (including avoiding public speaking), I managed to attain high grades and decided to take a gap year before university. My main reason for this was to take a break from all the learning and revising. I didn’t realize that this year was going to teach me a lot.
I applied for some waitressing jobs and one restaurant got back to me asking if they could call me to discuss the details. I agreed but I was very nervous. Luckily they couldn’t see my shaking hands and they agreed to give me a trial.
On my first day I shadowed one of the other waitresses. I hardly spoke. My job was to follow her with trays of food and wipe down the tables. The thought of greeting customers and taking their orders was daunting — but on my next day I was thrown in the deep end. I was given three tables to serve. My hands shook and I mumbled when I spoke.
I came home exhausted and defeated. I was annoyed with myself. How was I capable of getting good grades in my exams, yet I was unable to cope with a basic waitressing job? I thought I had always done everything right, but perhaps all those years of avoiding class discussions had finally taken their toll. It seemed I was incapable of talking to strangers. I began to worry. There were so many situations in life where I would have to converse with strangers and many of these situations might be really important: job interviews, making new friends and one day finding love. Confidence, I realized, was an essential skill, and I had to learn it.
On my next shift I made a strong effort to appear confident. I forced a smile on my face and tried to speak louder. I was still panicking inside but I tried my best to mask it. After a couple of weeks I was amazed at how far I’d come. I greeted customers with smiles and small talk and my shaking hands and rapid heartbeat were gone. I was now confident on the inside too.
In my next job at the local cinema I found that, as well as being more comfortable talking to the public, I also found it easier to chat to my new colleagues. Before, it would have taken me a lot longer to come out of my shell, but I found I could open up to them much more quickly. For the first time I was no longer seen as a shy person.
Taking a gap year and working was probably one of the best things I have done. Building up layers of confidence has taken time but this year out has taught me far more valuable lessons than an extra year of school would have done. At school, the teaching of confidence and public speaking never went beyond shallow suggestions that I should contribute to class discussions. The importance of confidence was never emphasized enough. Arguably there were opportunities to build my confidence, I could have joined a school committee or stood for the pupil council, but it was not obligatory and I easily managed to sidle past these, unaware of the essential lesson I was missing out on.
Being shy is acceptable, but there will always be interviews, social situations and moments in your life when you have to approach people, communicate effectively and do so in a confident, amiable manner. Clearly, grades are not all that schools should be focusing on. Confidence is just as important a lesson and I believe schools should be doing more to teach us that.