I was, shall we say, an Awkward Turtle throughout high school. If you look back at family pictures, I hammed it up for the camera until I entered that special ring of hell that is preteenhood. Suddenly, I furiously embarrassed just by my own existence and I actively avoided the spotlight. You can see the evolution of my discomfort in later family pictures; wearing big frumpy sweaters and jackets, I tried to become invisible by folding into myself.
For most of high school I was afraid to speak up in class for fear that something would trigger my blushing. I was nervous about becoming nervous!
Until I ended up in a class where silence was not an option, and taking risks was acknowledged, affirmed, and rewarded.
His name was Mr. E, he had a white beard, and he could do this thing with his voice where he projected even when speaking quietly. He divided his teaching time between our all-girls Catholic school, Ursuline Academy, and a local college. He expected a lot from us, including taking risks.
Even though I had always liked historical novels and biographies, Mr. E was the first instructor who made me like History thanks to his penchant for story-telling. He was also the first history teacher to explain the discipline as a field where evidence must be weighed and arguments made.
Up until then, history was a series of dates and events we students were forced to memorize and regurgitate. Mr. E challenged us to form opinions, advance arguments, and entertain speculations about the historical record, and moreover, to defend them in writing and during in-class debates.
And he was the first teacher to see how truly difficult it was for me - and students like me - to raise her hand, *speak words* (!) in front of classmates, and hold my ground when someone disagreed with me.
At the beginning of the year Mr. E showed us the stack of turtle cards, explaining every take one of us took a risk in class, he would notice. The card showed a little picture of a turtle and said, "BEHOLD THE TURTLE! - Who Makes Progress Only When She Sticks Her Neck Out."
I earned only a couple of turtle cards that year, but the fact that I'd managed to win any at all felt like an achievement.
I still have one and it's been all over with me.
I pinned it to the front of my desk when I was an undergraduate at Notre Dame, finally actively working on overcoming my crippling shyness and eventually succeeding.
I took it to Boston when I was fighting self-doubt all the way through my master's program at Harvard.
I stuck it in my wallet, forgetting it was there for months before rediscovering it again.
Now it's up on my office wall, to my immediate left.
I'm nowhere near perfect in my personal or professional lives; I'm in a continued state of setting and working towards new goals. But as a lifelong turtle, I know that it is the dedication to progressing that is the hardest and most rewarding part.
Attempting to make progress in any facet of your life means that you are developing confidence in your abilities to meet and resolve challenges.
Which is a risk worth taking, over and over - so turtle on.