Introverts have incredible strengths. We wanted to give you a tool to explore and discuss those strengths with kids in a way that’s engaging. The result? A 5-part series called The Hidden. Listen to the audio version of Episode 1 or read the text version below.
Five in the morning and wide awake. Right on cue. No alarm necessary. Prentice wondered how other people slept as much as they did. He was always late to fall asleep and early to wake. Once his eyes opened his thoughts were like dominos, one running into the next, a chain reaction without a break. Didn’t other people have brains? Did they not think? Or was his just abnormal?
Down in the kitchen, Prentice put the plastic pod in the machine pressed the button for a large cup. The water hissed inside, heating, and in a matter of seconds, coffee was streaming into his mug, black as the night. The old coffee maker broke some weeks back, and Prentice loved this new single-cup contraption. No grinding beans. No fumbling with the glass pot and waking people up. Keeping quiet—in other words, keeping everyone else asleep—was hugely important to him. Here, at this time of the morning, was the only time of the day he felt settled, calm, and the minute other people woke and this kitchen filled with parents and his sisters and his little brother, that peace would end.
With the quiet time he had, he read deeper into his book for Mrs. Klein’s English class, neatly arranged his papers and notebooks and textbooks inside his backpack, checked his emails and Snaps and Tweets, and when he felt organized, he went to the living room, put on headphones and turned on his PS4 to see if his friends were online yet.
He liked his friends the most when they were in their homes and he was in his.
His mom was the first to come down. She went into the living room and signaled for him to remove his headphones.
He rolled his eyes and yanked them off by the cord. “What?”
“I thought we talked about backing off of your coffee intake. All that caffeine makes you so edgy.”
No, he thought. All of you make me edgy.
She kept talking as she went back into the adjacent kitchen. “Plus, if you drank less coffee you might sleep for more than four hours a night.”
“I’ll try, mom.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Now go shower before your sisters get up or you’ll never get in there.”
When he came out of the bathroom, clean and dressed and ready, the whole house was awake, and his heart sank. The sound was everywhere. Any single member of his family, isolated, one on one, was fine. His mom was selfless; he never saw her do anything for herself. His dad just wanted him to succeed, even if it meant he was always pushing. His twin sisters were good to him when he was younger, though less so now that they were seniors; now they mostly ignored him, which he appreciated. And finally, his younger brother, five years old, clearly a ‘whoops,’ even if his parents wouldn’t admit it. Often, strange as it was, Prentice felt he connected best with him, a kindergartener.
Just add that to the list of things that made him feel like an outcast.
Prentice took a deep breath and went down to the kitchen, right into the cacophony of sounds. Fighting for attention, for the greatest volume, were the clanking dishes and running water and the television and the cabinets opening and closing, not to mention the voices, aimed at each other and at him and at nobody, saying “Did you get your homework done” and “When will you be home from work” and “Mommy Mommy Mommy look at my score on the iPad” and “Did anyone feed the cat yet” and “Why didn’t you tell me you guys had practice tonight” and “Now clean all that up. I’m not your maid.” Prentice heard it all, every detail of it, which meant he could focus on nothing. It went on and on, like it did every morning, until his dad grabbed his arm.
He jumped, startled, and turned and looked at his father.
“Buddy, I said your name three times.”
“Sorry, I was distracted.”
“You feeling okay?”
“Yeah. Fine, Dad.”
“It’s my turn to drive this morning. Why don’t you go ahead and get in the car. We’ll be out soon.”
The neighborhood carpool was awful. Arranged by the parents, each took responsibility for driving the kids to school a different day of the week. And the four kids—Prentice and three others—couldn’t possibly want less to do with one another; just because they lived close by and their parents were all buddy-buddy didn’t mean that they needed to be friends. Prentice couldn’t wait until next year when he got his license so he, like his sisters, could drive himself.
“So, Jason,” his dad started. “What are your big plans this week?” His dad always took pains to force conversation among them. The small talk made Prentice ill. Add that to the list, too. He stared at his phone and tried his best to tune them out.
“Soccer,” Jason said. Jason was always game for conversation. “We have practice two nights this week. Then a game next Monday.”
“Wow! Busy week for you. Hey, is it too late for anyone to get on the team?”
“Not sure. Probably. But I guess you could talk to coach about it.”
“Prentice, why don’t you think about that? Be social. Get some exercise.”
Prentice felt the eyes of the other kids come to him. He felt their stares and their judgment. He felt the reverberations of his response echoing in the halls of the school. He was suddenly furious at his father.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“What do you mean you don’t know? Come on, you used to love soccer.”
“I don’t know,” he said. He still loved soccer. But loving it and playing it were two different things, especially if it involved a tryout. So many eyes on him. Literally judging him. Awful.
But still his dad pressed. “It couldn’t hurt to talk to the coach. Jason would probably go with you, right Jason?”
Please stop talking dad, Prentice thought.
Jason said, “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Can we talk about it later, Dad?”
“Why don’t you guys just set something …”
“Dad! No! Stop it! Stop please!”
The car went silent.
Prentice didn’t want to erupt, but he did. He didn’t want to feel so different, so out of place, but he did. Now all eyes were on him, which was exactly what he wanted to avoid. He wished so badly he could hide, to fold into himself and disappear. He thought that if the car hadn’t been moving so fast, he might run from it.
“Okay, buddy,” his dad said, trying to sound casual, trying to move past the outburst. “So, Julia, what’s your week look like?”
Prentice tried to calm but couldn’t. Where was this coming from? The anger? The fear? The sadness? But it didn’t matter where it came from, because there it was, on sudden and full display for everyone in the car, and he knew it was just a matter of time before phones would be vibrating all over the school, and people would be reading Tweets and texts about how Prentice is nuts.
Add it to the list.
Prentice navigated the busy, loud halls in odd ways. He knew that if he took his usual path from chemistry class to English class, that he’d pass Jason in the hall, and the possibility of more soccer conversation was not bearable. So he walked the long way, moving down two floors, then walking up the far stairs, in order to avoid it.
It only made him a minute late for class. Worth it.
“Prentice, thank you for joining us,” Mrs. Klein said when he entered.
Prentice took a seat in the front of the classroom, the only seat left. But really, he didn’t mind being in front. English, secretly, was his favorite class.
“Anyway,” she said. “Let’s get on with the chapters we’ve read. I’m going to read a line here …” Mrs. Klein turned pages in the book she was holding but dropped it. The bulk of the class laughed. Prentice felt a pang of embarrassment for her, feeling his own face go hot. “Okay, okay,” she said, picking up the book. “Everyone settle. Now let’s see here. Try this one. ‘The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?’ Now, class, who can tell me what Thoreau is saying here?”
The room was quiet. Always quiet when a question was asked.
“Anyone? Did nobody start Walden?”
Prentice started it. Prentice started, and finished, everything she assigned, though he often denied it to his friends. Add it to the list. Plus he had a response to this question. But he wasn’t about to answer.
Mrs. Klein poked again, “Is Thoreau saying he wished he was evil?”
“No, he’s not,” a voice said from the back.
“Thank you, Marlow.”
Marlow? Prentice turned and looked in the direction of the voice. It came from a girl with short, midnight hair and a lace choker necklace. It was a girl he’d never seen before.
“Now, Marlow, if you don’t mind going further, what is it you think he meant?”
“He’s just mad at himself for spending so much time doing what everyone else was doing. He doesn’t want to live the kind of life that everyone else was living. He wished he went to Walden Pond to be alone sooner, maybe?”
“Good! That’s a good start. Anyone else have thoughts?”
Silence again. Prentice turned and made eye contact with Marlow. She nodded in his direction, thrusting her chin, as if to say raise your hand, dummy!
Prentice looked away.
Mrs. Klein said, “Okay then. Well, we’ll move onto another quote here.”
Everything began at lunch that day. Or perhaps it’s better to say that everything ended. Or better yet, everything changed.
Prentice waited in line for his food, then took his tray and went into the lunchroom. Even though he expected it, he was always struck by the overwhelming number of people and the unintelligible muddle of sound. It was like this every day. He took a few more steps, looking for his usual lunch friends, those same friends he looked for online this morning. Their table was a place where he could sit and be seen with others, yet not be expected to say much. However, the further he walked into the room, the more he realized they weren’t there. His eyes went from table to table, but the safety net of his people wasn’t around to catch him. Meanwhile, the voices around him were growing louder. He heard fragments of every conversation being had, none of it making sense: “I didn’t see that one but I want it so bad” and “Did you let him do it? You totally let him do it” and “Oh my god, look at this pic” and “Did you hear who flipped out this morning?”
He felt like he was treading water, getting tired—years’ worth of tired—but there was nothing to grab hold of. How can everyday life be so exhausting? And how can exhaustion make you so sad? There was pressure on his chest and his mind felt murky and dizzy and he was losing his sense of orientation. There was an empty table in the distance. Prentice went for it and sat, but he felt even more exposed, more vulnerable, because everyone could see that he was alone. His emotions made him feel naked.
Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard a voice whisper in his left ear, lips so close he could feel them moving, “You’re not doing this right. Take a deep breath. Just breathe.”
Prentice turned to his left and saw Marlow behind him. They locked eyes, hers rich brown. Then, after what felt like a flash, she moved behind his back, toward his right side. But when he turned that direction to see her again, she was gone.
Gone as in disappeared. Gone as in not to be seen anywhere.
Prentice stood in a panic, turning from side to side, searching from wall to wall with his eyes. But she wasn’t there.
Then he saw her, standing in the exit doorway. She smiled at him again, then turned and went into the hall. Prentice darted after her, dodging tables and chairs. Out of nowhere he crashed into a lunch monitor and nearly knocked her over.
“Hey, slow down,” she said.
Prentice heard the words but kept moving until he was in the hall. Immediately upon emerging from the crowded room, he bent over and put his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. His thoughts started to slow and he felt the temperature drop, like stepping out of a stuffy house and into a cool summer rain. Something was calming him. He felt it seeping into his skin and settling his mind and body like nothing he’d been able to do before. He looked up, and there she was.
“How did you do that?” he said.
“Which part?” Marlow said.
“How come I didn’t see you? Where did you go?”
“Maybe I didn’t want to be seen.”
“Earlier, in English … are you new in that class?”
“I’ve been in that class with you all year. And in last year’s English class, as well.”
“Then how come …”
“Shh,” she said. “Quiet. Use your thoughts.”
Prentice stopped, looked hard at her, then said, “You didn’t want to be seen there, either.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand.”
“That’s because understanding takes time. But I want to help you with that.”
“Help me? Why? Why if you didn’t want me to see you before do you want me to see you now?”
“Because you need it. Because you’re ready.”
“But ready for what? You don’t know me. Don’t act like you know me …”
“Shh.” She put a finger up to his lips and held it there. The smell of lavender washed over him and he felt his mind settle deeper and the tension release from his shoulders. “I do know you.” She removed her finger and took a step back, looked him up and down. “You’ve always been called shy but you hate that word because people use it in a negative way. You hear every noise in the room and can’t stand it when more than one conversation is happening at once. When people talk you, you feel interrupted, not your voice but your thoughts. You solve problems quickly and easily, have always liked puzzles and reading. You sleep poorly. You love a one-on-one conversation, but if other people are listening, forget it. And you, like me, feel what other people feel. You watch and understand and empathize. Am I right?”
Prentice stood paralyzed. Guesses. All of it, guesses. “Yeah, well, I feel a lot of things. What are you, a witch?”
“You go ahead and mock me,” she said. “But you’re suffering right now because you’re fighting it. You can’t calm yourself. You’re making it your enemy. I can teach you to use it. Appreciate it. I can make you stronger.”
“Use what? You’re talking like a crazy person.”
She looked over his shoulder, then back at him. “You’ll find me when you’re ready to know more. You’re one of the Hidden.”
“One of the what?”
Then, another voice from behind him. “Prentice, what are you doing out here?” He turned and saw the lunch monitor, the one he nearly knocked over. “You left a mess. You going to go clear your table?”
Prentice turned back to Marlow, but once again, she was gone.
Next hour was Mr. Johnson’s geometry. Prentice tried to focus on the shapes on the board and the explanation of sides and angles, but he couldn’t get Marlow from his mind, couldn’t shake the idea that he was going crazy.
He whispered to the girl next to him, “Hey, Katie, do you know a girl named Marlow?”
“Sure, I’ve talked to her a few times. I don’t see her very often though. Why?”
So she wasn’t just in his mind.
Mr. Johnson called on him. “Prentice? I’m speaking to you. Do you have an answer for me?”
An answer? He didn’t even know what the question was. He heard Marlow’s voice say, When people talk to you, you feel interrupted.
Prentice started to mumble, “I … ah …,” but he was saved by the PA system.
All heads turned toward the speaker and the voice of the school administrator flooded the room. “Please excuse the interruption. The following is only a drill. I repeat, this is only a drill. Teachers, please commence lock-down procedures. This is a lock-down drill. There is no real danger. Please commence lock-down.”
“Okay, kids,” Mr. Johnson said. “You heard the lady. I need everyone to get up and move to the corner. I need you to get low and get quiet.”
Mr. Johnson hurried to the door, took his keys off of his belt, reached around to the outside, locked and shut it. There was a shade he pulled down over the tiny window, then he went to the larger, outside windows and closed those, too.
Prentice’s classmates continued to chatter.
“Quiet please. We need to behave like there’s an active situation,” Mr. Johnson said.
Prentice went to the corner and crouched. An active situation, he thought. He tried to imagine it. The scene. What it would look like. Sound like. He tried to imagine the terror of it. Awful.
The giggles didn’t stop. He heard rumblings about trench coats and loners and losers. Prentice looked at them all, annoyed at first, bothered that they weren’t taking this more seriously, offended by their stereotypes and epithets. But then, something happened. He understood they were afraid. He saw into them. Drill or no drill, this made them nervous. They laughed to mask their fear, to hide it from their friends. Prentice again heard Marlow’s voice, You, like me, feel what other people feel. You understand them.
Prentice thought about the stress of this, of the horror of putting the students through these drills. The futility of the procedures. Again, he felt tired. Breathe. Just breathe. But was it futile? Was it absurd? The idea that they could curl into balls and hide? That they could go unseen? Breathe. Just breathe. Maybe it wasn’t crazy. Maybe this would be their salvation if anything ever happened. It was a fact of their existence. Breathe. Just breathe. The more he thought it through, the more he understood that sometimes the best thing to do was to be quiet. Be hidden.
After school, on his way out of the building, Prentice was walking and staring down at his phone, another trick to avoid eye contact with others. But just like that, she was walking alongside him.
“So you decided I could see you again, huh?”
“I did,” Marlow smiled. “Take it as a compliment.”
“Hey, when I choose a friend it means something.”
“So, you said I was hidden. What does that mean?”
“I didn’t say you were hidden, I said you were one of the Hidden. I’m a Hidden. It’s a noun, not an adjective, English Major. But we don’t always hide. Some nights we all go to the woods. You could join us if you want.”
“We all? Together? There’s more of you?”
“We’ll we’re not always together. We all go at once but the idea is to be alone.”
“So what, you’re a bunch of introverts who hang out together? I don’t get it.”
“I think you do get it. And that’s why I’m talking to you. Maybe you should just come. I’ll show you more. After it’s done, maybe we can talk about Walden,” she smiled.
“What makes you think I read it?”
“Ha. I told you, Prentice. I see you!”
“That creeps me out!”
“Add it to the list,” she said.
He couldn’t believe his ears. “What did you just say?”
Then a hand on his opposite shoulder. “Prentice.” He turned and saw Jason. “Hey, if you want to go talk to coach, I’m going there now. Want to come with me?”
Prentice stopped walking and looked and Jason, trying to gauge him, trying to decide if he was being teased or if the invite was sincere. He thought his heart should be racing. But he felt none of the fear he’d expected. There was just the smell of lavender.
“I don’t know,” Prentice said. “Give me another day to think about it.”
“Okay, just checking.” And Jason ran off.
Prentice turned back to Marlow, more questions in his mind, ready to learn more.
But of course, she was gone.
We hope you enjoyed The Hidden: A Melancholy, the first episode in an exciting series of stories. Please use the following questions to help facilitate discussion about the story and the topic of introversion.
- In what ways does Prentice’s relationship with his family seem complicated? Would you describe it as healthy or unhealthy? Why?
- Why does Prentice get upset in the car when his father pushes him to try out for soccer? His thoughts on trying out for the team are much more detailed than his thin verbal responses; why was he not able to give voice to his complicated thoughts?
- What do you know, or what can you discover, about Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden? How do you think the book might relate to The Hidden?
- Using your own words, describe what is happening in Prentice’s mind and body when he’s surrounded by loud sounds, voices and general commotion. Are there times when you can relate to those feelings?
- What can we infer from Marlow’s apparent ability to appear and disappear at will?
- Marlow says to Prentice, “… you’re suffering right now because you’re fighting it…. You’re making it your enemy.” What is it that Prentice is fighting? Why does he fight it?
- In your mind, what happens during the lockdown drill that causes Prentice to soften on Marlow’s suggestions?
- Discuss the emotional significance of the phrase, “Add it to the list.”