In spite of the large number of people who are genuinely shy, our society treats shyness as if it were a disease, something to get over. Yet some of the most interesting people I know are shy - and probably always will be.

Another term we often use is "quiet." In a group we publicly observe that a certain person sitting among us is "awfully quiet," as if that were a sin.Over the years, most of the better students I have taught in college classrooms are shy people unaccustomed to saying the first thing that pops into their minds. Instead, they think it over, and when the idea has firmly crystallized, they express themselves. They never go on and on. They just speak succinctly and then stop.

I like it.

These are some of the same people who write well - also without going on and on.

Then there are other people in a classroom who talk while they think - who are not sure what they're trying to say - who just keep going in spite of obvious sighs of embarrassment from their peers.

So my question is, "Why is shyness something we should try to conquer?"

Haven't you ever gone into a store and wished the sales clerks were shy?

Haven't you ever gathered at a family reunion and wished that more family members were shy?

Haven't you ever attended a game at the Delta Center and wished that the patrons sitting behind you were shy?

Maybe I identify with this issue because there has always been a shy streak in me. Undoubtedly, there are people who know me who would not agree.

But I have to be comfortable in a group before I share my feelings. And while I'm not as shy as many people, I think I understand the discomfort of those who are singled out for being quiet.

To young people we say, "Speak up. You'll never amount to anything unless you can say what you think."

Well, maybe they haven't decided yet. Maybe they're just not ready to speak. Maybe they choose their words carefully.

To teenagers who look for work, prospective employers say, "I don't know if we can use you. You seem a little shy."

And I say, what's wrong with that?

Andrew Wiles, a 40-year-old English mathematician at Princeton who, it appears, finally solved the deceptively simple theorem presented by Piere de Fermat 350 years ago, has received instant fame. It may be the most exciting mathematical discovery ever. Interestingly enough, Wiles declined to speak to the press because he is shy.

So with all the claims of discrimination currently in vogue, maybe our cavalier treatment of shy people is one of them.

I had a good friend in Massachusetts who was not given to schmoozing. Small talk was not his strong suit, and he didn't care. He was surprisingly adjusted and happy with his own quiet personality.

When we were in a group he would speak very little, but whenever he did speak, everyone listened intently. They hung on every word. They focused on him completely, because they knew whatever he said would be important.

It always was.

Known for his wisdom, he excelled in life. But he was unusual in his ability to accept his own personality. Somehow, he had overcome the prevalent attitude of society - not his shyness.

Not all shy people may be able to do that. Instead of waiting for just the right opportunity to contribute, they may avoid public gatherings. They just might believe the nonsense that more boisterous types say about them.

In so doing, we who discriminate rob ourselves of their thoughtfulness. We may miss the contributions of their superior minds. We may even create an inferiority complex where it doesn't belong.