How a sixgill shark got this introverted teen to talk | KUOW News and Information

How a sixgill shark got this introverted teen to talk

Sep 8, 2016

Meet Grace Zheng.

She's a 16-year-old volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium, where she chatters away to visitors about the scientific exhibits: "This is a jaw from a sixgill shark," she says, noting, "You can see how its teeth are serrated."


It's no mystery why Zheng enjoys her work. She adores science, the way it answers the questions you never thought to ask.

But chatting with a group of strangers? That doesn't seem like her.

Zheng used to be as quiet as the fish she describes. She was the girl who wouldn't raise her hand in French class, who wouldn't talk at parties. And for the most part, being a wallflower didn't bother her.

Some people don't enjoy conversations. They're too awkward, too quiet. They simply freeze up. Zheng is an introvert, and she didn't overcome her fear of talking until she was in the spotlight.

I was afraid that I was gonna say the wrong thing, I wouldn't be able to speak, I was gonna stutter.

Zheng and I attend the same high school. In January there was a history presentation. Students had to give speeches, and were graded on how much they spoke. Each speech was impromptu and built on the speech before it.

"Throughout the whole thing I was really pushing myself to speak, but I couldn't," she recalled. "I was afraid that I was gonna say the wrong thing, I wouldn't be able to speak, I was gonna stutter."

Zheng couldn't stop second-guessing herself. She was swallowed by her own emotions: frustration, doubt, fear, panic. The assignment ended and she could already feel the tears brimming over her lashes. She hadn't been able to speak enough. While her classmates headed off to lunch, Zheng wandered around outside, crying.

It was the first time her quietness had spelled destruction. Silence had always just been a part of her identity.

Zheng moved from China to the States when she was four, then had to learn English. She wasn't comfortable speaking. Introversion and a language barrier sentenced her to silence and prevented close friendships.

I had friends in elementary school, except they weren't really my friends. Eventually in junior high I realized that the reason I wasn't close to them was because I never talked.

"I had friends in elementary school, except they weren't really my friends," she said. "Eventually in junior high I realized that the reason I wasn't close to them was because I never talked."

I couldn't see why Zheng didn't like talking. I mean, she's incredibly smart. Four-point-oh and all advanced classes, and if she ever studies I've never seen it happen. She's articulate too – when she actually talks. But maybe she could learn to like the limelight?

There was this club – the Future Business Leaders of America – and it had a regional speaking competition about a month after the history presentation. If we placed well, we could attend a state competition in the spring. I asked Zheng to be my competition partner.

The format was intimidating, to say the least. Each pair was given 20 minutes to prepare for a seven minute presentation. The entire presentation was like a conversation: dependent on ability to speak up, act confident, improvise.

"Conversations are basically impromptu speaking," Zheng said. "I think that is kinda why I'm also bad at conversations."

Zheng doesn't like the rush, the banter. "My brain doesn't work like that, man!" If she and I wanted to sound like natural communicators in front of the regional judges, we had an ocean to cross.

Grace Zheng and her competition partner (and creator of this story) Surya Hendry. Zheng overcame her fear of speaking to make it all the way to the national speaking competition for Future Business Leaders of America.
Credit Courtesy of Grace Zheng

So we got together to practice. And little by little, we improved.

The day of the competition arrived. Zheng introduced herself, shook the judge's hand, smiled winningly ... and crashed.

"I was kinda like fumbling around for words to say." Zheng said. She was thinking, "Oh my god, I'm running out of stuff to say. What do I say? What do I say?"

We squeaked into sixth place, barely qualifying for the spring state competition, which was both incredibly competitive and two months away.

As I organized practice days, Zheng – ever the scientist – began volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium.

"In my interview, they asked me what my greatest weakness was," she remembered. "I said that it was communicating with people."

That weakness couldn't last long. At the aquarium, Zheng told me, you have to be enthusiastic. "People won't want to listen to you if you sound like you're dead." She learned that "when you speak and you sound more confident, you kinda become more confident."

When you speak and you sound more confident, you kinda become more confident.

Confidence and enthusiasm: the hallmarks of a good presentation.

At the state competition we introduced ourselves, shook the judges' hands, smiled winningly and ... won second place in the state!

"It was good," Zheng enthused. "I was at that point really comfortable with speaking."

Grace Zheng and her partner won second place at the Future Business Leaders of America's state speaking competition.
Credit Courtesy of Grace Zheng

She had proven herself. She could simply do more now. She decided it would be a good idea to start a club at school: TSA, or Technology Student Association.

"It requires a lot of communication," Zheng said, "and because I've gotten so much better at it over the year I feel like this is a thing that's very doable for me."

Despite all this, Grace Zheng is still an introvert. If you found her at a party, she would be in the corner playing games on her phone. If you found her in a classroom, she would still be the one that never raised her hand.

Grace Zheng receiving the award for ninth in the nation at the Future Business Leaders of America's national speaking competition.
Credit Courtesy of Grace Zheng

It's not that her quietness has disappeared. It's that it can't control her.

And that's why if you found her in an aquarium, Zheng would be the one chattering away by the sixgill shark.

This story was created in RadioActive's Summer 2016 Intro to Journalism Workshop for high school students at KUOW. Production support from Nina Tran. The editor is Jim Gates. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.