No sweeping exits or off stage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind…
The Rolling Stones, “Wild Horses”
When I was little, excitement for change overruled my fear of it. I barely knew fear then, or, at least, I didn’t understand it.
I couldn’t wait to start school, to meet new friends, and to learn about everything and anything. Everyday, my grandmother and I would watch out the front window for the yellow school bus to amble down the street and bring my brothers home. I envied their backpacks and plastic superhero lunchboxes, and some evenings I would sit next to them at the kitchen table and pretend I was doing homework as well. School represented an entry to another world — a world filled with more games and books and friends; a world of unlimited knowledge.
And so, when it came time for me to start kindergarten, new shoes and my own plastic lunchbox and backpack in hand, I couldn’t be more excited. My mom walked us to the bus stop that first day, chatting with the other parents and kids as we waited for the bus to take us to that seemingly enchanted world that my brothers were lucky enough to go to each day. I followed them up the steep bus steps, the good butterflies causing me to grin as I waved goodbye to my mom.
I don’t remember much about kindergarten, but I know it wasn’t the experience I expected — or that anyone expects for their child. Bits and pieces of those memories come into focus, but the colors of the objects remain the most vivid, like I’m seeing the scene rather than the memory.
I remember the coat cubbies — bright, clean wood where we stored our lunchboxes and bags. I remember the tables and the small colored seats that were the perfect size for our little frames. I remember two or three computers lining a wall, and I remember crayons and construction paper and the chalkboard.
I remember the plastic scissors on which the boy sitting next to me accidentally cut his lip; I remember her face and how she yelled at him; I remember him being grabbed by the arm as he was told to clean up at the sink. I remember him — a mop of dark curly hair. I don’t remember his name.
If I think about it long enough, maybe I even remember hiding behind the winter coats in those cubbies, afraid to come out. But I don’t remember wandering the halls to find my brothers’ classrooms; I don’t remember hiding in those classroom closets or crying when I was brought back. I don’t remember being afraid to get on the school bus the following days, and I certainly don’t remember cutting words and high tones being directed at me.
But I do remember that my mom and dad pulled me out of that classroom as soon as they figured out what was going on. And I do remember the toys in the therapist’s office and how I was more interested in that dollhouse that looked like a tree that I was promised I could play with afterward than I was in talking. And I remember meeting my new teachers for the first time at the Montessori school that my best friend went to and how she held my hand as my mom and my teacher and I sat on a wooden bench outside of my new classroom. I especially remember running down the stairs after my mom, screaming and begging her not to leave me.
It’s the first time I can really remember fear.
Every single day my mom walked me to my new classroom. And every single day, my teacher would take me to the balcony overlooking the church of the building in which the school was held and speak to me in a gentle, soothing voice until my heavy breathing turned to hiccups and my tears left dry stain marks on my cheeks.
Soon, with the help of my parents, my teachers, and my best friend, I learned to love school again, returning the next year for pre-first grade. I remember that classroom. I remember sitting on the carpet reciting words for colors in French and Spanish. I remember writing my first book with my best friend, complete with illustrations and a cardboard and wallpaper cover, bound by binder rings. I remember doing cartwheels on the soccer field and riding the school bus with new friends. I remember the patience and soothing demeanor of my teachers. I remember smiling again.
I didn’t understand then this deep sense of fear and anxiety that seemed to plague me for so many months. All I knew was that someone was leaving me and I was afraid. Now, I wonder if a little of that fear has lingered with me all of these years, manifesting itself into a fear of anything that will upset this web of comfort and control that I have subconsciously so carefully constructed.
President Roosevelt once said, “there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.” But sometimes, that can be enough to change your world.
When I began having my anxiety attacks, we discovered that change was the trigger and mapped this fear of loss and perceived-abandonment (because while I know as an adult it is anything but, as a child that seems to be the natural assumption) to this part of my childhood. What was supposed to be a positive and exciting change turned into something I dreaded and feared. And while as an adult I want to love change and embrace it, I’m often too wary of it to do so for this very reason.
But just as I learned to smile again, just as I learned to trust and let go as a child, so, too, am I learning as an adult. Though she will always be with me, I’m not that same little girl anymore who hid away beneath the coats in a cubby. I’m learning to do now what I couldn’t possibly have done then…
I’m learning to fight back against my greatest enemy, to embrace my greatest strength: