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How to give reserved kids (and adults) a voice

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In eighth grade, my social studies teacher asked for a volunteer to define “sagacious.” Atypically, I raised my hand. Ms. F. called on me, surprised to see me participating. But when I gave the correct response, she looked at me disapprovingly. “Did you just look that up in a dictionary?” she asked. That sealed the deal. I never spoke in her class again.

I may not have been talking much in school, but I was taking everything in. That was the year I heard Sting’s song “Russians.” I thought a lot about the Cold War. I know. Not the typical 14-year-old girl obsession. In between playing tennis and wandering the mall with friends, I read about the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. What, I wondered, was our president thinking? Mystified, I handwrote an opinion piece in pink highlighter and sent it to The Boston Globe. In it, I argued that if a teenager knew this was stupid, then surely the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union could figure it out too. I still remember my dad’s surprise when he saw my column in the newspaper.

The recent news about North Korea got me thinking about my eighth-grade self. I was so introverted, I never said anything out loud about Reagan or public policy. Somehow, printed words felt different, safer. Writing felt like shooting fireworks into the sky, then watching them dissolve mid-air. (Clearly this was before Twitter and online comment sections.)

As a counselor, I’ve learned that the quietest kids are smart and perceptive, but they communicate differently. They may draw me a picture of a sad face, or leave me an unsigned note with clues to their identity. (A favorite one said: “I don’t want to say who this is, but I’m the very upset fourth grader you had lunch with last week.”) Sometimes, they come in and stare at me expectantly, waiting for me to initiate the school counselor version of 20 questions.

It’s hard to embolden shy kids to voice their opinion. I try to get creative, and writing is one of my favorite strategies. I might ask a student to write a short review of a book he loved, then share it with a classmate. Or see if he’s willing to read a poem to a friend. Some kids like emailing politicians about an issue, while others feel more comfortable writing a thank you note to a staff member.

I’m more extroverted as an adult, but I still relate to reserved kids. Even now, I find writing less stressful than speaking. I once confessed to a supervisor that I write more fluently than I talk. At a meeting with him, I kept looking down at my notes. Eventually, he kindly suggested that I just read them. I remember thinking, “is it bad that my boss is basically offering me a 504 accommodation?” Maybe, but it was such a relief.

In many ways, it’s easier than ever for children to share their perspective. With one keystroke, they can fling messages across the world. But it’s also riskier than it was in 1986. Instead of dissolving like fireworks, words linger in the blogosphere forever. I want to empower our quiet kids to join the dialogue anyway, whether they’re offering up a definition in class or contributing to a family dinner discussion. So if you happen to be a 14-year-old girl with a secret North Korea obsession, go ahead and write that op-ed. I promise to read it.












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Phyllis Fagell

Phyllis Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor, certified professional school counselor and journalist.

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