I finished my bachelor’s degree in about three and one-half years, graduating without fanfare and without ceremony in December 1975. Although I think graduation ceremonies were available for mid-year graduates who completed their degree requirements outside the normal May-June cycle, I chose to forego the celebratory formalities of graduation. No one I knew was graduating at the same time; no one I knew would have been interested in attending my ceremonies, anyway. And though I am sure my parents would have attended, had I participated in the rituals of graduation, those rituals held no substantive meaning to me, so I opted to forego the rites.
The circuitous reason my college graduation is on my mind is that I heard a Janis Ian song, At Seventeen, a day or two ago. That song was released in the middle of 1975, just a few months before my college graduation. Despite the fact that the song expressed the story of a seventeen-year-old high school girl, its underlying theme of social isolation felt deeply personal and relevant to me—a nineteen-year-old boy who had become increasingly isolated and socially awkward during his high school and college years. My memories of high school and college, though indistinct and incomplete, confirm that I was felt that I was not noticed much; and when I was, the acknowledgement came in the form of mockery and teasing. At least that is how I perceived the experience. I was a loner, though not entirely by choice. I simply did not know how to overcome the shyness that grew like kudzu within me as I stumbled through my middle to late teenage years. Listening to the Janis Ian song brought back memories of how completely isolated I felt during the few years I lived in Austin, Texas, attending university there. I know from personal experience that one can feel lonely and so very remote from one’s peers in a setting with roughly forty thousand other students.
I learned, from reading psychology books and articles and from lectures in psychology classes, that feeling alone in the presence of others is also a common symptom of depression or social anxiety. Learning what to call it, though, did not translate into understanding how to combat my deepening sense of social isolation. No, I think I knew of ways that might have enabled me to make connections with other people; but I was too unsure of myself to put myself in situations that I thought could have been even more painful. I did not know how to engage with more gregarious people; I tended to gravitate toward the few people I encountered who, like me, considered themselves social outcasts. I resented my high school classmates who were popular, thanks in part to their involvement in school and extracurricular activities like sports, sponsored “clubs” like the Spanish Club and the Astronomy Club, etc., etc. I did not participate in those activities; I was not invited to join them and I did not know how to ask without putting myself at risk of rejection. My resentment followed me to college, where I honed my distaste for fraternities and sororities and college sports. My animus toward college football grew into intense loathing when I found myself in an elevator in Jester West Hall with several members of the University of Texas football team; they pretended they did not see me, but swatted me around the elevator as if I were a fly. Had I been armed with a gun during that experience, I feel certain I would have turned a group of football bullies into corpses.
Over time—a long, long time—I taught myself to mask my social timidity. I learned how to pretend that I was comfortable in social settings. I overcame my natural shyness to the point that I can, in certain settings, make myself appear to be a gregarious extrovert. My first job in association management required me to engage, personally and directly, with large numbers of people. That experience helped me overcome the appearance of shyness. But even today, what may appear to be easy banter with strangers and casual acquaintances, my initial engagement with others conceals discomfort. Though my discomfort is not as intense as it once was, it exists beneath a veneer of easy warmth. Even after the initial discomfort has worn away and after strangers finally become friends, it seems I worry that my new friends’ behavior toward me might be artificial, like my initial warmth is a disguise for my unease. Even today, if a friend behaves in a way that I perceive as contrary to the way “real friends” behave toward one another, I am quick to react. I erect shields around me in an attempt to keep the emotional pain at bay. And I recall the lyrics of At Seventeen, including these…To those of us who knew the pain, Of valentines that never came, And those whose names were never called, When choosing sides for basketball…
But those feelings of emotional fragility have sufficiently diminished to enable me to feel more— or less “normal” in many settings that once were very difficult. Yet the lyrics of a song can spark a firestorm of memories that reveal that extremely sensitive kid—the guy who mastered the art of deception.