Near Bryce Canyon National Park.JPG

The Quiet Kid

I was a quiet kid. Exceedingly so. I recall my teachers entreating me to share my ideas. Their efforts, I’ll wager, were met with a mysterious, close-lipped smile I inherited from my mother. It’s a smile that says: Not gonna happen. Years later, as a teacher in Lighthouse’s Young Writers Program, I find myself on the other side of the desk, trying to inspire, persuade, con—hey, whatever it takes—my quiet students to speak.

But here’s the problem. I understand the quiet student. I recognize his desire to remain silent. I identify with her restraint. Sometimes it’s shyness. Or lack of practice with public speaking. Or fear of how our ideas will be received. Sure, those reasons and others can play a part. Less known, however, is that quiet students are not always simply trying to avoid speaking. Because if you’re a card-carrying quiet kid, you also know this: the rewards of the unspoken.

What are these rewards? First, it’s a matter of finding them. You see, in any classroom discussion, two parallel worlds exist. One lives on the surface, the give-and-take of actual spoken conversation, the momentum that propels a class toward discovery. As any teacher will attest, this is, well, the purpose of discussion. And yet, there’s more. Living below the surface of that world is another: a rich terrain hidden in plain sight; an underworld accessible only by acute listening and rapt attention. It’s a place where you notice how people prepare to speak and how their expressions shift after they’ve shared. You sense when someone is holding back; you feel a breath being held in the room. It’s a place pulsing with human nature in all its sublime and muddled glory, the spillover of outward discourse, where uncooked ideas lurk and unvoiced emotions dwell. You learn that some people speak to share things; others speak to hide things. Tuned in, you begin to consider that the speakers are the ones missing out.

I’ll still keep encouraging my students to speak. There are detriments, of course, to silence: not finding your voice; letting fear build up; or too strenuously self-identifying as “the quiet kid.” I became a teacher for that kid. And I’ll use all the tools at my disposal to draw her or him out. But I’ll do so with a wink of understanding. I know that other world, the classroom pulled inside out. I’ve lived there, too.

originally posted on the Colorado Gives Day Lighthouse Blog 2018