When I was too Shy To get Involved

closeup of a female student carrying books while standing on a sidewalk with parked cars

by: Giselle General

When a child is labelled as an ‘honour student’, that comes with significant implications. There is a barrage of positive traits that are associated with it: intelligent, well-disciplined, capable, confident, admired, role model. The positive associations can also be a heavy-handed set of expectations.

In the Philippines, the English word “transferee” is used to describe students who were new to the school and didn’t start first grade or freshmen year in the school. Growing up in a small mining village with a single school where everyone knows everybody, being a transferee is a rarely-used label.

And then, I became one of those students. Halfway through high school, I moved from the small village to the nearby city.

silhouette of a person walking alone

The move was unnerving for many reasons, and one of them for me is navigating academic achievement and extracurricular involvement. My younger self knew that schools are the same everywhere, that well-performing students get awards and recognition and benefits such as scholarships. The schoolyear stared in June and it wasn’t until November (so about 5 months in and more than halfway through the school year) when I started getting involved again in school clubs.

There were so many things to get used to in this routine. I never had to travel through public transportation every single day, two trips, to go to school and back. It was three years since I lived with my younger brother, and I was living alone in my house-and-business-building dwelling, my sari-sari store, for about a year. It sounds strange to say but I had to get used to living with people again. My brother and I are back to having the mother/father/sister dynamic that we had, only he’s 10 years old and I’m in the midst of puberty.

During the first few months, my priority was knowing names in the school, and within a few weeks, I was successful in knowing the names of my classmates, both first names and last names. The school was previously an all-boys school, and part of the culture was for students to call each other by their last names, since there’s too many students with the names John, Alexander, Anthony, Mark, James, Carlo, etc. The tradition carried on with the female students. So yes, I had to get used to be called General by students during casual conversation. In the early morning before class starts, I hear often “hey yo, General! can I copy your homework?

Two clusters of board game pegs, one cluster with 6 light organge pegs and one brown peg by itself.

But I didn’t join any school clubs right away, because I was still afraid of going home late. I was fearful or unsure on whether the elders, the legal guardian, is aware of the challenges and realities of high school students living in the city. We don’t have a computer at home, so even something as simple as submitting a printed report requires going to an internet cafe in downtown Baguio and it requires a lot of organizing. These city kids seem fancy and wealthy and carefree, and I don’t know how to fit in.

Eventually I was able to articulate, although awkwardly, why I didn’t join clubs. “I feel too shy to go”. My uncle, Tito Roy, who was a teacher in the school, snapped me out of it in his own way. He said how ridiculous that is and told me to “just go and give it a try’.

That really paid off because it opened multiple opportunities for me to feel the same way as in my former school, get involved, achieve things, and have a mental escape from the horrors at home that were about to happen the following year. Managed to be the valedictorian for my graduating class even if I was there for just two of the four years of high school.

As an adult, I think there are times I still feel like this. I found a fancier, but perhaps more appropriate term of it. ‘Imposter Syndrome’. There is a daunting feeling of feeling like an outsider for a multitude of reasons: because of being new and in an unfamiliar space, and being uncertain of one’s ability to be a positive impact in that space. I think the last thing that people want is to be perceived as dead weight or an inconvenience.

Has this feeling gone away? Not completely. I’m participating in the community in ways that I haven’t heard my elders or friends do: help at an election campaign, offer to be a columnist for an ethnic newspawper, submit a writing proposal for a heritage-focused digital writing project, registering to join a board of directors of an organization. So many times I feel a bit lost and unsure navigating these situations. One advice I heard that helped is this: everyone is just trying to wing it. Another one I’m trying is to approach things with curiosity. Instead of thinking “oh man I don’t think I really get what is going on here”, to think “hmmm, what is going on here and what new things I can learn?”

The shy side of my is likely still there, and it’s not the worst thing. A key lesson I remembered from therapy is that “feelings are information”. The feeling of shyness and uncertainty is simply a sign of being new in a situation, experience, or dynamic. And it can be handy in embracing, learning and growing.

Story Time: When I Chased Around My High School Principal

Four high school students in uniforms, standing in front of the classroom by the blackboard,making silly hand gestures.

Halfway through high school, I had to move to Baguio City, Philippines from the mining village I grew up in that was an hour away. The adjustment was a bit rocky, from having an actual travel commute from my home to the school, being hands-on again with caring for my little brother, and living with my grandmother and my cousin. It was a drastic switch from living alone to living with people.

I was motivated to do well in my new school, the prestigious “Boy’s High” in the city. We were the first batch of co-ed students for the school and it feels like being observed with a microscope all the time. It was an awkward adjustment for everyone, from teachers, the upperclassmen, and students. Seeing students with long blouses, vests and skirts as uniforms was a new sight, as well as female students taking leadership positions in various extracurricular activities.

When I found out that there was a school newspaper, I was thrilled! I joined right away, the new student who is a bit older than some of those who have been part of the club for a few years since their freshman hear. My first task, interview the high school principal for an article. Sounds intimidating, but sure, let’s do it! For context for non-Filipinos, students have a heavy sense of respect and fear of school teachers and administrators.

Our school’s layout was unique, with a road cutting between two areas: the main campus, and the annex campus. When the school switched into a co-ed format, enrollment numbers increased and as a result, a new building was built. The principal’s office is closer to the entrance of the school, on the main floor of the first building of the Main Campus area. My homeroom classroom is also on the main floor but on a separate building, one of the only two classrooms across the open basketball space that housed the chemistry lab, the library, the medical clinic, and the nurse’s office.

I prepared my questions and walked right into the principal’s office, tried to ask politely and in English, on whether I can interview the principal for the school newspaper.

The office secretary told me to come back a few days after during the lunch hour, about 12:30 PM, so that there is some time when I’m not in my class for us to speak. I came to the office and her secretary said that Mrs. Robles is not available, she might have forgotten our meeting, and for me to just try to stop by the same time the next day.

And then, the third time around, I managed to see the principal in her office but she was not available for the interview. She looked at me and said, “you are a determined student, Miss General”. I wondered then if she ever had a student relentlessly ‘chase after her’ before. So we found another mutually agreeable time to have an interview, and I managed to complete my article for the school paper.

This was my primary way to adapting to the new school, immersing myself in academics and extracurricular activities, an attempt to replicate what I used to do. It paid off in many ways, from graduating as valedictorian, getting asked to compete on behalf of the school for competitions which meant a day off from school, free fancy food, and a default 100% score on any quizzes I miss while competing, and a sense of value in myself.