When I decided to go back to school after I had just finished school, even I wasn’t sure what I was doing. But I was okay with being in school; the school environment is comfortable for me. What I am not comfortable with is meeting new people. Starting from scratch. Smiling at strangers. Squirming in my seat.
I walked into class on my first day sometime in January and all my energy was going into trying to keep my face from showing my disappointment and anxiety. It’s not ideal for your new classmates to be able to tell right off the bat that you think you deserve better. The classroom was small. Large windows on one wall for when you got bored and wanted to look seven floors down at the Nairobi bustle. I honestly never envisioned myself having classes in the CBD–it always seemed odd to me. The CBD is for running errands, not for learning. There were holes in the ceiling where some panels had fallen off and never been replaced. A dusty, musty carpet that looked like it was there before the building itself. When you took a step without looking, your foot dug up the carpet somehow, making it peel off the floor and send a cloud of dust into everyone’s throats. Yes, coming from a school covered in tile and cabro, I was disappointed.
I sat next to the wall opposite the large windows and took out my phone. I wondered why the desks were arranged in a circle instead of in rows and columns. I surveyed my classmates as they walked in and settled, saw that they were nothing like me, began to panic. I could already see myself being judged, being told about my ‘kizungu mingi’, being asked where I live and watching their faces twist into sneers because people who live where I live have a reputation for snobbishness. Justifiably, I was afraid I would not fit in.
I make a terrible first impression. When people meet me they think, ‘What a snob.’ When they are asked about me a bit later on they say, ‘ako na maringo’. I don’t blame them, really. I don’t have a friendly face. I do not exude warmth and acceptance. When a stranger walks up to me and tries to strike up a conversation, they are left sorely disappointed. I am protective of my personal space and my smiles are not given freely. You know how people say, ‘kwani unauza salamu?’–my internal reaction to that question is, ‘How I wish I did.’ I don’t even like greeting people; I would prefer it if we could meet and just start talking without the pretenses of how are you and how is your family and where are you these days. I don’t remember the last time I greeted my friends or my siblings and they stopped expecting it so everybody is happy. Win-win. The rest of the world–especially this part of the world–is not so accommodating. ‘Salimianga watu’, right? I found out soon enough that my class is full of people who take offence when you don’t greet them the second you walk in. Just my luck.
All this would be unremarkable if it were not for this one thing: I walked into that class because I am a therapist in training. Therapists are supposed to just love people and want to be there for everybody, right? They are supposed to be people that you feel you can talk to the second you lay eyes on them. They are supposed to put you at ease just by their presence. When you sit with them, all your trauma and your fears and dreams are supposed to just come tumbling out of you with no reservations.
I am none of those things. I have none of those effects on people immediately I meet them. If anything, when you first meet me without context, you will feel the need to keep a safe distance. And I will be grateful for it. Which is why I was anxious on that first day. Once you are identified and labeled as someone with ‘maringo’, that sticks for a bit. And then you have to do the most to show people that no, I really am a nice person once you get to know me.
I realize that this isn’t a thing that is going to work in my favour in my line of work. I’m working on it aki. One day I will be able to light up a room when I walk in, say hi to everyone individually, smile like there is no tomorrow…you know, be approachable. Okay, probably not but you get what I mean. For now, I have embraced my terrible first impressions. I have learnt to be grateful for what I gain from it, which is peace. No, really. Not many people bother me when I am just sitting there minding my own business. And when someone does bother me, I have less of a problem showing them that they are bothering me than most people do. If you are making me uncomfortable, you will know. These are gifts, not curses, especially in a world where everybody feels entitled to your time and your energy and your effort. When you don’t seem warm and welcoming the first time people see you, they will not come waste your time.
The good news is that when you take time to get to know a person, the first impression you had often falls away. There are many people who have left my presence thinking that I should just go jump off a cliff but there are also many people who stuck around long enough to realize that they don’t actually want me to do that. Because when the cold exterior wears off, they found that I cry about everything, my favourite thing to do is watch videos of kittens on the internet, and I don’t even have the guts to select an ice cream flavour that is not vanilla, let alone be as mean as I look.
My classmates did have those judgments about me when they first met me. Some of them, at least. I know because we did an exercise on first impressions and that’s what came out when they were talking about their first impressions of me. I laughed and they laughed and everyone was happy. Especially because they followed those confessions up with confessions about how wrong they were. You see, guys? I am not cold-hearted. Maybe a bit cold on the outside, but inside? Nothing but sunshine and ponies and cotton candy.
Okay, maybe that description is a bit of a stretch but the point is that I am a nice person and I will make a great therapist because I care about your mental health and I want to help you figure things out. So there.
Give people a chance. If there is anything I have learnt about people it is that not many of us are what we seem to be. We don’t operate on that what-you-see-is-what-you-get vibe. I was pretty wrong, too, about some of my classmates. There is this sweet, soft-spoken lady with a gentle smile who I assumed was a housewife who had come looking for self-actualization, or maybe a nursery school teacher. I learnt that she is actually a police officer and I don’t think I have recovered just yet from the shock of it all. Another lady who now looked and sounded like she could be a cop–tough exterior, assertive tone, no trouble looking you in the eye and saying you are wrong–she is a receptionist at a hotel. People are rarely what they seem.
First impressions will never stop mattering. Because we are humans and we judge so that we know where to place ourselves in relation to those around us. But first impressions should be malleable. You should be able to see that yours was wrong and be okay with that. You should be able to listen to someone and see the ‘more’ that they are on the inside. You should be able to discard your first impression of a person because it is there to help you when you first meet someone, not years after you meet them. Be brave and open enough to see people, to really see them.
I have accepted that I make a bad first impression. I don’t even try to fight it much anymore; I just continue being and hope for the best. I do not pretend to love all people or that my sole purpose in life is to spread joy. That is not how I am wired and that’s okay. I will probably always take a while before that warmth can come out and that’s okay. My face will probably always look like I would have no qualms running you over with a truck and that’s okay. Because I hate driving anyway so that is unlikely to happen. The point is, give people a chance. If you don’t like them after a while then sure, hold on to that, but when you first meet someone, be open to seeing a different person than you expected. Expect people to surprise you.
I’m really coming around to being a person who has faith in people. Such huge steps from a person who calls people trash way too many times in a day. So much growth, guys! Now, if only I can learn to post on this blog every week instead of when I feel like it…