I am a paradox. That is my identity. I could talk easily about myself but would panic if someone had actually asked a question about me. I could easily go up on stage to present or even perform, but standing in a crowd would make me feel uneasy and suffocated. I could have a friend over for most of the day, but if I went to a packed party for an hour, I would desperately need to go home. But despite my paradoxes, my quietness was well known.

I was known as the “Quiet Mouse” at one workplace. At another, I was once locked in a large fridge while keenly hunting for a missing box there, with no one noticing I was not around. Apparently, any of the other girls working there would’ve made a racket, and people would have noticed their presence as well as their absence. Me, I was overlooked.

It’s the same whenever I go out. Waiters, servers, or people at the counter calling out “who’s next!?” while I’m standing there frown at me, wondering why I couldn’t be more assertive and whether a flashing neon suit would be of some help to me.

But here’s the thing: Ask my piano students whether I’m quiet or shy, and they would tell you the honest fact: no. When teaching, I am in my zone, in my realm. Music is in my veins, and to teach it to a new generation is my privilege. I will tell them stories, use examples to demonstrate, and even embarrass myself to prove a point by singing a note off key.

One heart-warming moment was with a young boy who had started off learning the piano very quickly but soon plateaued out. It’s a naturally occurring—but often misunderstood—phenomenon in learning. He was mad at himself. He was also introverted and painfully shy. The only warning I had about his anger at his own momentary inability to succeed was, well, I dunno. A clenched hand? A quick flick of an eyelash as he hit yet another wrong note? Years of watching people, being unable to adequately socialize with them, warned me about what was wrong. And this little boy was shocked: none of his school teachers were able to pick up on such a change in his gentle attitude. Perhaps ours were kindred personalities (also the overpowering mental jungle of another 28 minds in the classroom put his school teachers at a severe disadvantage). He was happy to have me as his teacher, and his mother was pleased.

Being “quiet” for so many years in social settings means I have developed keen observational skills, and being an avid reader (admittedly from hiding out in the library to avoid bullies) means I have finely tuned my theory of mind. These aid me in my teaching; they are my weapons of choice, pinpointing students’ weaknesses or bringing to my attention subtle changes in students’ moods, which could tell me a lot of useful information about how to teach them on each particular, unique day—because no two days are the same.

Students may know me as “not shy.” Parents, when I update them on their child’s progress, wouldn’t know any different either. But if they talk to me about anything else, the confusion and shyness creep back in. I’m startled by their unexpected questions, or else their small-talk attempts leave me puzzled.

When the children performed in a concert, I was the presenter, standing at a microphone. I even performed and sang. But after the concert, when all the parents wanted to talk to me, I retreated to the table of food in the far back corner, cup of tea in one hand, cramming food into my mouth so I could avoid conversation.

I used to hate it. I was desperate to change, to be more social. But then I realized those very disadvantages were my strengths. Now? I never want to change that.

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