Celebrating Awkward, Shy, Peculiar, and Odd

A version of this article was originally posted on Yasmine Jacobs’s blog, Yasmine From the Ground Up.

I have felt odd all my life. I often lacked the courage to stand up to overbearing people—sometimes to my own detriment. I hated confrontation. I hated taking the stage. I am drawn to shy brilliance, anxiety-ridden uniqueness, and off-the-wall people. Sometimes I prepare a speech, and at the last minute, chuck it out—to say what I feel at that moment in that space. When I am done, it’s all a blur. I am surprised when my husband tells me I did an amazing job. Typically, I just want to go home.

To my family’s dismay, I often try to avoid huge family gatherings or, heck, any big gatherings. I would sidle up to the ones sitting alone, make conversation, and enjoy smaller group chats. I used to be very self-conscious, hating walking across a filled room. I still hate walking into weddings. Everyone thinks Abu is super romantic holding my hand as we enter—the thing is I want to bolt at any moment while he, trying to help me stay, is whispering sweet nothings like: “You look beautiful today.” When I look into his smiling eyes, I am okay.

I’d much sooner be in the sanctity of my home, surrounded by my family and few friends, cooking up a small storm, dancing around to Nusrat Fateh, or working alone among plants and flowers with the cats at my heels. When I write in the early hours and the house is asleep, the words flow into my fingers.

As a quiet educator, I delight in the moments when I detect the brilliance of my most angst-ridden student—the one who hides her face and does not like attention. I feel that Allah (Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala) placed me there, at that spot, in that moment in time to catch her reticence, acknowledge it, and hold it dear. I am often moved by the quiet ones, who sit, smile, and say nothing… whose profile pictures on social media are not selfies but profound statements or caricatures of something or someone else.

Yasmine Jacobs | two students laughing

I have nephews and nieces and children who are challenged by the status quo. They stay mostly in their own worlds, in a space that allows them to be. They are devoted, creative, exceptional, and very spiritual, and they live within the shadow of normalcy. They are not defined by whatever is current. They are by far my favorites.

Yasmine Jacobs | shy boys

I try to bear in mind all different kinds of personalities when I develop learning materials. As a college lecturer in South Africa, I allow opportunities for students to show me who they are, so I can tell them that who they are is wonderful, and that things do get better or at least different. So I create time for reflective productivity journaling (which also allows for doodling), work with learning management systems (like Edmodo, Canvas, and Coursera, which allow students who don’t want to interact verbally to voice their opinions in writing, boldly and responsively), have reflection sessions, play movies and create opportunities for verbal and written discussion on them, and use beautiful visuals.

I also develop and create alternative assessment tools, such as asking students to make 5 minute movies, which allow students to conceptualize, design, and develop media as a tool and a voice to speak for them. I create spaces that are not too stressful but also not uncreative and pedestrian. I find documentaries such as Rivers in the Human Planet for viewing, inspiration and discussion. I make time and opportunity for one-on-one moments with students, where they can speak about whatever it is that affects them. If the student wishes, they and I can even sit and celebrate their achievements in silence.

On the other hand, I make an effort to understand my most rambunctious student too. The stroppy ones, the ones who talk back, the ones with a bit too much swagger. Because underneath I know there is a soft, insecure underbelly and much of it is for show. Face-to-face moments with them are necessary too.

For our Global Leadership and Life Orientation course at the International Peace College South Africa, we designed a stewardship component that runs parallel to the course. The component offers a chance for students to try their hand at artistic expression; develop their own initiatives with community engagement; design their own spaces on the campus premises to create gourmet gardens and get their hands in the soil, and express themselves in written form via a blog that connects all of the work to the community. All of these things assist them in making more informed career decisions and make a difference to our school and our community.

Yasmine Jacobs | teacher and student

I have seen students with immense artistic flair they didn’t know existed before the course. I have read countless evaluation answers where students expressed that they could be their best selves in all parts of their lives if they made time to work in the garden. Last year, students created initiatives for students with ADHD, tea parties for elders, and so forth.

Yasmine Jacobs | student group

I think I always walked my path for others, never losing faith in Allah’s love and guidance. I still have those moments when I feel like a complete geek, but I am an expert at disguising it when I have to and reveling in it when I want to. I have learnt to walk with confidence, stand up for truth and justice, and never let go of my empathy. It’s not that I’m afraid; I choose not to stand in the spotlight, only making an exception when it is to welcome students or to educate and demonstrate to students. Now, being true to who I am, I weave my joy in words.

Some tips for educators working with students who are different:

    • Don’t push shy students too hard to overcome their shyness. Be patient; most times they will emerge when they are ready. Instead of pushing, give them support in being silent.
    • Allow students a safety net by creating small group opportunities all of the time.
    • Make time for face-to-face moments or personal emails.
    • Let students know that you are there for them without being patronizing. It’s enough for them to know that you see them.
    • Widen the parameters of what is seen as “normal,” e.g,. a brief for creating—how you see the world.
    • Don’t take yourself too seriously. Humor is essential. If you can laugh at your own awkward moments, so can others—even when you fall off the table.
    • Find materials for case studies that celebrate unlikely and unsung heroes. See Quiet Revolution’s Quiet Revolutionaries.
    • More than ever, tell them you are available to them to speak to you about anything that bothers them. Mean it, and act upon it.
    • Plant food and find quiet.