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What's Wrong With Being a Loner?

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I was sitting in the waiting room at the vet, waiting for my cat to be returned to me, and I overheard a conversation. The receptionist was talking to another woman, who had just explained that she was a first grade teacher from West Virginia, who was visiting her daughter, who is a vet.

"I need some advice," the receptionist was saying. "The teacher called and said there's something wrong with my son. He is a loner. What do you do about a loner?"

"Well," the teacher said in a soothing, teacherly voice, "Maybe he just likes to be by himself."

"But his teacher is worried," said the receptionist. "He's not normal. And in the pictures of the class, where they're all playing together, he's off by himself. He even told the teacher that he'd rather play alone." There was a desperate note in her voice.

"Are you making sure to expose him to group activities?" the teacher said.

"He's in kung fu."

"Good. So that's good! He's around other kids. It's probably just a phase."

"I hope so. But his uncle is fifty, and he's still living with his mother. So ... I can't have that happen." She paused. And then asked, "You don't think he could turn out like that, do you?"

"Well, that's about the parents, not the kid! You're not that kind of parent."

"No, I'm not! I'll tell him to get a job and move out!"

"Exactly."

They laughed, the mother uneasily, the teacher reassuringly.

"But why would she say 'loner'? That sounds so bad," said the receptionist, immediately serious again.

"I don't think she should have said 'loner.'"

"Hey," I said, standing up from the seat by the door and coming over to lean on the counter. "I couldn't help but listen."

"Are you a teacher, too?" the receptionist asked.

"Nope. Just..." I tried to think how I could justify my participation. "Someone who is interested in education."

"Oh."

"I think you should read this book called Quiet," I said. I spelled "Cain" for her, as in Susan Cain, the author, and she wrote down the info.

"Quiet like 'be quiet'?"

"Right. Like, 'it's OK to be quiet.'"

We smiled.

I explained that the book was about how people have different personalities, and not everyone should have to be social in the same way. I told the receptionist that sometimes quiet kids, who get called loners, are sensitive and highly intelligent and creative.

"Oh, he's like that!" she said, eager now. "He picks up Chinese from his grandmother. And he says the funniest things. The other day, he said, 'Mommy, please don't use that harsh tone with me.'" She smiled, relieved to talk about his good qualities.

"How old is he?"

"He's in preschool."

Preschool. Oh my god. So very young.

"He's just developing!" I said. "But I know he'll be fine. He'll be better than fine. He sounds really independent." I really wanted her to believe me. It surprised me how much I wanted that.

"He is!"

The teacher turned to me. "What makes you so interested in all this?" she asked.

"I don't know," I said. "Maybe because I was homeschooled, so my education was unusual." I wasn't going to mention it, of course, but I'm bad at not telling the truth on the spot. I wished for a second that I was not wearing a flannel shirt and too-loose yoga pants, and that I had taken a shower before coming over.

"Oh! Homeschooled! People think that homeschoolers can't socialize."

I grinned. "That's exactly what they think."

But there's more to it. I was a loner, as a little kid. If you can even call such a little kid a loner. I was shy for a long time. I became very outgoing when I was a teenager. It took a long time to get there. But of course, at the same time, I was never shy. Around my family, I was always goofing off. I was hilarious. I was ridiculous. I was obnoxious. And of course, even now, I am not only outgoing, I am sensitive. I have moments of complete and utter awkwardness. I can be bumbling. In Susan Cain's book, when I took the personality test, I fell under the middling category of "ambivert." Someone who is in equal parts introverted and extroverted. Sometimes I wonder if it's because I didn't go to school. Because my quietness never made me an outcast, or deficient, and my outgoingness never made me insensitive or popular. They simply were. And then they weren't. And then they were again, depending on what else was going on.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to me if people had decided for me, early on, what I was like. I am pretty sure they would have decided that I was a loner. Too shy. Too sensitive. In need of more socialization, even though I kept saying no, no, I just want to be alone.

Why are we so afraid to let kids be alone? To let them like to be alone? Being good at being alone is so important. Why are we so afraid that kids will turn out to have the "wrong" personality? And why does being quiet so often get interpreted as the "wrong" way to be?

I couldn't seem to stop talking, at the vet, even after my cat was returned to me, chastened, in her carrier. I set it on a seat and stayed at the counter. And the receptionist didn't seem to want me to stop, even though I was this random unwashed girl in a flannel shirt, who had been homeschooled. I told her about my little brother, who used to be sullen and withdrawn around other kids, and who now can be seen in a clip someone posted on Facebook, singing at the top of his lungs, mic in hand, at the front of the stage, as his frat brothers sway in a choreographed line behind him, backing him up. You can hear the girls in the crowd screaming happily, like fans at a pop concert. I told the receptionist that this, too, has its challenges. Now, when we worry about my brother, we worry that he is too outgoing, too popular, too cool. There are dangers here.

There are dangers everywhere, I guess. There are dangers in everything.

But for some reason, I just want this child, the son of the receptionist, whose name I don't even know, to pass through preschool untouched and unlabeled. I want him to move on to kindergarten and first grade without having learned that there is something wrong with him. This child who seems to know himself so well, so young. I want him to be left alone, to discover the world.

A version of this post originally appeared on Eat the Damn Cake