Most people that know me today wouldn’t associate me with the word “shy,” but I used to be quite the little wallflower – especially if I was in a new, unpredictable situation. For instance, as goody-two shoes/teacher’s pets in middle school, my best friend and I were allowed to skip gym and cover the administrative office while the secretaries lunched. (No, really.) I could not get myself to answer the phone, my friend had to get any calls. It just completely intimidated me to have to talk to someone I didn’t know, whose questions I couldn’t predict.
From 6th grade on, that best friend and I were absolutely inseparable. Even though all of the girls in my school were friendly, it was widely understood that we were the BEST friends. You didn’t invite one without the other. We were allowed to bring each other to family events (I went to Christmas Mass with her family and spent the holiday with them) and if she wasn’t at school, the teachers knew to ask me why. We had a few fights as all girls do, but I was so dependent on her that I could look past most anything in the name of our friendship.
When I was 15, I was recommended to participate in the People to People Student Ambassador program to Australia. I had never been to sleep away camp – or even a camp that I couldn’t walk to from my house – so three weeks on the opposite end of the world was kind of a stretch. But for me, Australia was THE country to visit and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Best Friend had not received the invitation, which meant I was going to Oz with 41 people I didn’t know. In the months of preparation for the trip, I focused on koala bears and kangaroos to avoid the separation anxiety that was obviously in my future. Somehow, we said a teary good-bye, I gave my parents a big hug, and got on a flight to Los Angeles.
My brave veneer started to crumble in the LA Airport. Our layover was just long enough for me to start doubting myself. There I was, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, tired from a 6hour flight with another 14 hours to go. I started desperately scanning my surroundings for a pay phone; I had every intention of calling my parents, apologizing profusely for wasting their money, and then begging for a return flight to the East Coast. But I was afraid to wander off by myself and was soon ushered onto a Qantas flight across the big, blue sea.
I had taken my contacts out for the flight, but I could still see a few bright stars out the window. I focused on those stars the entire flight and made tentative conversation with the fellow ambassadors next to me. It was so calming to see the same stars out the window whenever I looked… and yes, a few years later, I finally realized that those were the lights on the wing that were keeping my heart rate normal. As long as it worked, right? I was a little too nervous to think clearly.
Once we landed in Sydney, our itinerary went into full effect. Our trip leaders wouldn’t let us stop for rest so our bodies would adjust better to the crazy time difference. We were ushered around Sydney and Bondi Beach in a whirlwind but because everyone was so exhausted, it put us on the same playing field. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like so much of an outsider.
The three weeks in Australia were beyond amazing. We traveled from Sydney to Cairns (the equivalent of Florida to Maine) by charter bus, stopping to spend a few nights on a cattle ranch in the Outback and – gasp! – live with a family in the tiny town of Coffs Harbour. That was another extremely difficult portion of the trip for me but I made it through with flying colors and a few pen pals. We learned how to play the didgeridoo and snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef. The best part of that whole trip, though, was learning that I could handle a big, scary situation like a trip abroad without needing to hide behind anyone’s skirts. I made great friends on that trip and learned that I was a person that people wanted as their friend. It was shocking, which looking back is pretty sad, but I thought that the reason Best Friend and I were so close is that no one would want to know me as well as she did.
When I got back home, Best Friend and I were still extremely close. But that year I started developing a few other friendships and expanding my social circle. And when she and I had a relationship-ending battle senior year of high school, I had other people to fall back on for support. Australia taught me that I was a complete person who did not need an ‘&.’ I was not a “Buy One Get One Free” item – I would sell at full price by myself.
Now I am able to see new situations as opportunities. I’m still nervous about meeting new people, but who isn’t? Taking a chance is frightening, but only because you are opening your life up to potential. I never would have known this if I had found that payphone at LAX.