ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"On Being Shy," an essay by Dennis Vannatta


This fall my grandson Andrew, almost eleven now, participated in cotillion.  My wife and I, Yankees transplanted to this Southern state, had no familiarity with cotillion and, when our children were of age to take part, shrugged it off as some silly vestige of the Old South.  Andrew’s mother moved here from the Chicago area and never joined, either.  We were surprised, then, to learn that Andrew was going to be in cotillion, which involves an introduction into etiquette and deportment as well as learning to dance the waltz, box step, who knows what all?  Dance, that is, with girls.  I couldn’t imagine Andrew volunteering for that.  He didn’t.  “He’ll hate it,” our son, Matthew, said, “but it’ll be good for him.  He’s shy.”

Shy.  The word went through me like a sudden onset of malaria.  I’ve been shy.  I am shy.  It is, O my brothers, no joke.

I’ve had rheumatic fever, pneumonia, arthritis, bursitis, and cancer.  Shyness is worse than any of them.  Yes, even cancer.  Cancer can kill you, of course, but it’s just one of many things that can end your life.  Shyness is your life, part of who you are and wish you weren’t, less an illness than a congenital defect, a spoiled chromosome.  It can, sometimes, be managed to a degree; it can be disguised—but successfully so only from others, never yourself.

I wasn’t always shy as a little boy.  Maybe it had something to do with my spending my early years in tiny Appleton City, Missouri (pop. 1,050), where my father was superintendent of schools.  A superintendent of schools in a little town is as close to a monarch as America affords, and I was a little prince.  When I went to the high school basketball games, I wore a jacket especially made for me, a smaller version of the warmup jackets worn by the varsity players.  I starred in the class play.  On the front row of the local movie theater, I kissed cute Gloria on the cheek, me, first grade Lothario.

Those bright shining memories run counter to others, though.  I didn’t like being looked at.  I’m not sure how I ever performed on stage even for a couple of minutes because being the center of attention was agony for me.  I remember breaking into tears when my friends sang happy birthday to me.  Thereafter, I refused to have a birthday party because of the prospect of being looked at by everyone.

When I was eight years old, my father took a job at another little rural school district, but instead of living in the town where the school was, we moved to the nearby big city, as I thought of it, of Sedalia (pop. ca. 25,000).  I was no longer the superintendent’s son, the prince; but, because I shrank from special attention of any kind, I can’t say that bothered me.  I loved Sedalia, instantly made friends, liked school.  But I still teared up if someone so much as looked at me, refused to consider having a birthday party, would have run away from home rather than be in a school play, couldn’t bear the thought of speaking in front of the class.  When I went up to the teacher’s desk to recite my multiplication tables, Mrs. Cross had to pat me on the back and urge me to calm down because I was shaking too much to talk.

I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture.  If I could avoid being stared at, speaking in front of a class, etc., I was doing all right.  If I put just the right slant on it, for instance, I could claim I was quite the guy with the ladies.  In the fourth grade I had a crush on super-cute Shirley, and super-cute Shirley reciprocated.  In the fifth grade I asked lovely Veronica to go to the movies with me (an actual date!).  In the seventh grade, I went to parties and French kissed a variety of girls (timing it to see if we could break the three-minute barrier).  In that year I also gave a heart-shaped necklace to Linda of the impossibly-cute upturned nose, and she said she’d give me something in return if there weren’t so many people around.  Call me Jack the Lad!

Yes sir, I was doing as well as most boys my age, and better than many.  In retrospect, though, I can detect seeds of something more ominous in my social triumphs.  Probably my flirtation with Shirley was too early to be significant, but I can’t help noting that it ended when I punched her in the shoulder (playfully, I thought) and ran away.  Did she run after me?  Apparently not, but I can assure you I would only have run faster if she had.  What would I have done if she’d caught me?  And my date to the movies with Veronica?  I was tormented with anxiety from the moment I asked her out and could only go through with it by inviting a friend along to share the burden.  As for Linda, when I gave her the necklace and she came back with that provocative, “I’d give you something if there weren’t so many people around,” I got the hell out of there.  Those make-out sessions with girls at parties were more like calisthenics (how long can you go?) than something even mildly erotic; probably their greatest appeal was that I knew they wouldn’t go anywhere, require anything more of me.

But what was that further requirement that I was so afraid of?  The one thing that was absent, or nearly so, in the four anecdotes related above—and also with Gloria in the first grade, now that I think of it—was actually talking to the girl.  Apparently I could kiss a girl on the cheek, give a gift to another, French kiss a few until I nearly passed out from lack of oxygen, even take one to a movie as long as a friend was along as a buffer; but talk to a girl?  No.  I couldn’t.  That was the prospect I found so daunting.  Why, though?  Maybe something atavistic was taking over.  I would have done fine as a caveman, maybe; wham, bam, and don’t bother with thank you, ma’am, because back then talking wasn’t required, not even possible.  Ah, the good ol’ days.

Still, everything considered, to this point I thought I was doing pretty well for myself.  My seventh-grade year, in fact, was something of an anna mirabilis for me, socially.

But then came the descent into what I think of as “the freeze.”

It was triggered by my moving on from my comfortable little world of Mark Twain Grade School where I knew everybody and everybody knew me and automatically included me in parties, games, what have you to huge Smith-Cotton High School.  (The eighth and ninth grades, technically junior high, were housed in the same building.)  All of a sudden I was amongst mostly strangers, and I wasn’t automatically included in anything.  Where was Shirley?  Where were Veronica and Linda and my French-kiss buddies?  I hardly ever saw them.  To be sure, there were other girls there, and some of them as cute as Shirley or Linda, as hard as that may be to believe; and, to be sure, I developed massive crushes on several and was a skilled practitioner of worshipping from afar; but that’s where they remained:  afar.  How was one to draw nearer?  It would require talking, wouldn’t it?  Sacre Bleu!

Wait.  Forget that flippant sacre bleu.  I promised myself when I began this that I would not fall into the trap of trivializing shyness or, worse, making it somehow amusing or even charming.  This is not Happy Days, some callow yet endearing lad ducking his cow-licked head, blushing, and aw-shucksing his way into the heart of that ridiculously cute girl with the freckles.  Let me clue you in to the bitter truth:  in reality, the shy guy doesn’t get the girl.  Girls don’t like shy guys.  It’s the brash guys, the ones who think they’re hot stuff, why get the girls.  I shouldn’t attempt to speak for women, but I’d guess that this is so because shy guys are hard work.  The burden is on the girl, and a lot of those girls are shy themselves.  They are probably grateful for the BMOCs taking the lead.

There’s the rub, that taking the lead part.  No doubt things have changed, at least to a degree, but back then, half a century ago, boys were expected to asks the girls out.  I can sympathize with the girl sitting by the phone hoping and praying it would ring and a boy would be on the other end asking her out; but I can attest that it was no picnic for the boy sitting by the phone trying to work up the courage to call.  I managed it only one time my five years at Smith-Cotton.  The girl was Sherry, vivacious blond cheerleader, not just out of my league but out of my species.  But I’d been told that she liked me, so I girded my emotional loins and approached that phone.  Then retreated post haste.  Went out into the front yard.  Tried to control my breathing, my trembling hands, something akin to nausea stirring in my bowels, a cold sweat gathering in my armpits.  Went back inside, crept up to the phone, rushed back outside, tried to control, etc.  Finally, like a soldier who believes all is lost and so charges up out of his foxhole guns blazing, I rushed back inside, dialed, heard Sherry answer, asked her out, was told her parents wouldn’t let her date for another year.  I hung up.  Devastated?  If you think that, you haven’t been paying attention.  No, I was so relieved I could have sat down and cried.

It’s not funny, shyness.   Not a bit of it.

You might think that what I call shyness is at heart low self-esteem, or an inferiority complex as we would have said back then.  No.  Two different things.

I blush to say it, but I’ve always had a pretty high opinion of myself.  At least twice I’ve scored in the genius range on I.Q. tests.  I’m no dummy.  I can’t claim I was a great athlete, but I was fairly good in all sports, good enough that I never embarrassed myself, never got picked last.  I made friends easily.  Still do.  More important—and more puzzling in a context of my shyness with girls—is the fact that I thought I was a pretty good-looking guy and knew that the girls did, too.

I may have only once had the courage to ask a girl out in high school, but girls asked me out at least three times.  Two I rejected, making up some excuse; the third, in a moment of weakness or perhaps uncharacteristic courage, I accepted.  We went to a party with the in-crowd kids where I was utterly miserable, didn’t know what to say to her or anybody else and couldn’t wait for the night to end.  I saw the girl a decade later at a class reunion.  She brought her wife with her.  I blame myself for turning her off men.

Anyway, I knew that girls liked me, knew that I could be “successful” with girls if I could just play the game, but I couldn’t.  Not low self-esteem:  shyness.

Interesting that “the freeze” set in when I was thirteen.  Aha, puberty!  Maybe the switch to the big school was largely coincidental, with the onset of puberty being the root cause of my problems.  That is, it was all about sex, in this case a fear of sex.

While I wouldn’t discount the importance of sex in this or just about anything else, I think shyness and sex anxiety are related but ultimately two separate issues.  I was shy before I knew what sex was, after all, and my shyness often manifested itself in many situations unrelated to sex (pace, Freud), like looking an adult in the eye or speaking in front of a group.

It wasn’t sex I was afraid of as an adolescent but girls.  Simply talking to a girl was, for me, a task worthy of a Hercules.  Actual sex was an activity hardly in the realm of reality, something like an urban myth.

No,  the fear-of-sex-causes-shyness postulation has it backwards, I think.  Shyness comes first and exacerbates those awkward sex uncertainties most adolescents experience.  Almost all my friends went through the same thing—crushes, worshipping from afar, rarely dating—but with me it was much more severe and longer lasting.  They were just “normally” shy, Happy Days shy, if you will.  I was pathologically shy.

It didn’t stop with the end of adolescence but lasted through college.  Indeed, my college years were worse.

If high school was “the freeze,” college was “the big freeze.”  I look back on my high school years, except for that shyness thing, fondly.  It might have been forbidding at first, but I grew to love that big building.  I felt at home there and had a lot of friends (just not girlfriends, doggone it).  Most of those friends scattered after high school, though.  It was difficult to make new friends in college because I continued to live at home while commuting to college and working six and often seven days a week.  I was at college only long enough to go to classes.  Mostly, I was alone. 

I virtually never dated—with one exception.  In the summer between my junior and senior years, something incredible happened:  for a brief period, I dated two girls at one time!  One girl lived in Kansas City, and I drove up two or three times to see her.  The other lived in my home town, and I’d known her for years.  How it came about that I dated them, how the dates went, how it all ended would require a separate essay to recount.  Ultimately, though, I think it ended because I wanted it to end.  I couldn’t stand the pressure, the anxiety.

I wouldn’t blame the reader for wondering if the real problem was that I was gay but didn’t have the courage to face it and come out of the closet.  The fact that I would have been happy if that were the answer, and the solution, may indicate how bad shyness gets.  No, I never felt desire for a male whereas I felt physical, romantic, emotional desire for about every good-looking female over twelve and under fifty who crossed my path.

In June of 1969, at the age of twenty-two, I was drafted into the Army.  After basic training and then MP school, I served six months as a virtual campus cop at West Point and then my last thirteen months in West Germany.

I’ve gone to some lengths in this essay tracing the development of my shyness and could have gone on for many times as long.  Strangely, I don’t have much to say—much that I can say—about the period when it began to ebb.  There was no great epiphany, no transforming experience, no chain of events and/or realizations that led to me emerging from the Army a different person than the one who went in.

Maybe—no longer living at home, out on my own for the first time—I just grew up.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that for two years I simply didn’t have much of an opportunity for shyness.  Who would I have been shy with?  My fellow soldiers?  I made friends easily and instantly in the Army.  Officers?  Face-to-face with an officer I, like every other GI, feigned respect and deference, then rolled my eyes and sneered once his back was turned.  It just wasn’t an occasion for shyness.

I did have some contact with girls when I was in the Army.  In fact, I had more dates over those two years than in either high school or college.  (The bar is admittedly very low in this regard.)  At West Point  I had one date with a girl from nearby Ladycliff College and recall being typically tongue-tied and miserable the whole time.  Another girl, though, I dated a few times and, yes, felt anxiety leading up to each date but almost enjoyed myself once I got there.  Baby steps.

I came home on leave from Germany for a month, and a friend at the University of Missouri twice set me up on dates. Praise the lord, both times I enjoyed myself, especially with Karen, darling Pixie, and I think Karen enjoyed me, too.  During my last six months in Germany, I thought a lot about Karen and couldn’t wait to get back to Mizzou and see her again.

The following fall, I was out of the Army and enrolled in grad school at Mizzou, but Karen, alas, had not returned.

I was disappointed but not shattered.  There were thousands of girls there, and I was determined not to fall into that worship-from-afar trap again.

Several of us guys living in a quad-plex threw a party.  A girl who lived in the dorm with my apartment-mate’s sister needed a ride to the party, and I went over to pick her up.  She wasn’t supposed to be my date—I was just the chauffeur—but we stayed together throughout the party, talking.  I called her the next day, and we talked over the phone for an hour or more.  Next year we’ll celebrate our fiftieth anniversary.

What had happened to my shyness?  I really don’t know.  Maybe by then, it’d just come to seem a little silly.  When I was a child, I thought as a child, etc.

But was it really gone?

A number of years ago, before I retired from teaching at the local university, a colleague of mine—a new faculty member whom I hardly knew—was trying to talk me into running for department chair.  Not interested, I said.  He started again to try to convince me but suddenly stopped as if he’d just remembered something and said, “Oh, that’s right.  You’re shy.”

I was stunned.  Here I’d fooled myself into thinking I’d left that behind me forty years earlier while all along it was there for all to see like a birthmark staining my face.

No, shyness isn’t just a phase you outgrow or a disease for which you can find a cure; it’s a characteristic.  I am what I am.


I think there may well be a shyness gene.  My parents had six grandsons, only two of whom married.  The other four never even dated.

My son was one of the two to marry.  It was touch and go in that regard, though.  By the time he’d reached maturity, he was six-foot tall, athletic build, blond hair.  A real head-turned.  Literally.  Women would watch him as he crossed a restaurant.  Still do.

He never dated in high school.  He joined a fraternity in college and had a lot of fun but, despite the numerous opportunities that must have come his way, so far as I know never dated.  I recall once making a joke, something along the lines of Freud’s “what do women want,” and he said, “Boy, I don’t know.  I have no idea what to say to them.”  Like his dad, he could walk the walk, but he couldn’t talk the talk.

We weren’t worried about him, exactly, but we did wonder when “it” was going to happen.  I made a prediction to my wife:  “The first girl he dates two times, he’ll marry.”

One spring break he came home from grad school and, as we were about to get up from the dinner table, said that he had something to tell us:  he’d been dating a girl.  The gravity with which he said it—announced it—made it obvious that this was big.  This was it.  We asked about her, who she was, how they’d met, and so on, and then I asked in passing how long they’d been dating.  “Two weeks.”  Two weeks is enough for a shy person.  You don’t want to have to go through something like that more than once.

Yes, he did marry that girl, and now they have three sons, and the oldest, Andrew, is shy.  The middle son, William, is more confident in every way than Andrew, but he’s also more volatile, unpredictable.  Will he be shy?  You never know what William will do until he does it.

Then there’s the youngest, James.  Oh, James!

A conversation with James, then age three, shortly after he began going to Mother’s Day Out:

Grandpa:  So, James, how do you like Mother’s Day Out?

James:  Good.

Grandpa:  Have you made any friends?

James:  Yes.

Grandpa (comically arching an eyebrow):  Have a girlfriend yet?

James:  Yes

Grandpa:  What’s her name?

James:  Addie.

Grandpa:  Is Addie pretty?

James:  Addie is the pwettiest girl in the world.  I love her.

That was two years ago, and, despite a brief dalliance with that young hussy Anna, James is still in love with Addie.

I have hopes for James.


Author Dennis Vannatta has published creative nonfiction in OFFCOURSE, BIOSTORIES, SHADOWBOX, ANTIOCH REVIEW, RIVER OAK REVIEW, and elsewhere and fiction in BOULEVARD, RIVER STYXX, PUSHCART XV, and many other journals and anthologies.  His sixth collection of short stories, The Only World You Get, was published by Et Alia Press.

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