Scaredy-cat…the kid that couldn’t go up the monkey bars beyond the first rung. The kid that couldn’t light a match until age 16 when the pilot light on the gas stove went out and we might have been overcome by carbon monoxide, no adults around, and it was a do or die moment. However, not scared of the dark or spiders or public speaking. Never wanted to have a superpower that involved flying without a plane but would have opted for xray vision or the ability to run faster than a speeding bullet. Never felt the need to have an insignia like Batman, Supergirl or Wonder Woman or the costume that went with it.
Recently, I had a conversation about roller coasters and trains and cable cars. I was speaking with a young man about knowing something about being scared and feeling anxious. We talked about a feeling that stops people in their tracks and immobilizes them to the point that they experience physical feelings of terror and dying and the belief that the feeling will never end and they will never not feel this way. It is palpable and in a moment’s time, it seems as though time stands still and that feeling overpowers. Anxiety, an emotional state that makes a person feel as though they are never more alone than in that moment that they cannot even express the depth and breadth of their fears. It is amorphous. We acknowledge it retrospectively. It is the most powerful kind of undertow of panic and fear. It grabs us and brings us to a very, very dark place. Through it we surface again, catch our breath and our heartrate returns to normal, surprisingly. We didn’t drown in it, we survive.
Working with adolescents in an urban high school is being exposed to some raw emotions, some of which are rooted in trauma, neglect and the emergence of mental health diagnoses. Some of the feelings that capture adolescents are those of normal developmental angst partnered with living in our world, which is unpredictable and challenging. I always couch my response to any stories I hear with the understanding that we all have stories, with common threads, but we ourselves are unique. I listen to narratives of violence, abandonment, neglect and abuse. Sometimes there are no words in my vocabulary to respond. Sometimes all that helps is allowing their words to be spoken out loud, often for the very first time. Sometimes sitting with them, in quiet reflection, is the beginning of the next part of their journey. It is the beginning of offering a different path and company for this short time. Once the story is revealed, I can almost see a lifting of a heavy burden off their shoulders and faces as they look up. They often, for the first time, look directly at me waiting for validation and acknowledgement. I always want to offer hope, despite my own level of uncertainty, in the moment.
Explaining that we never know when we look at one another, what someone else has experienced, is often the opening. The high school is filled with students from many backgrounds and ethnic origins. When they see me, I imagine they see a blonde haired (no comments) fair skinned woman who may be as old as their grandparents but who doesn’t look like most of them. When I spoke to the young man a few days ago, we started a conversation of places he had been and what he considered an adventure. He talked of the best experience of going to Universal Studios in Florida and going on what I would deem pretty scary rides. We talked about my fear of roller coasters, based on a ride, that I did not volunteer to go on, when I was a teenager, on the Cyclone in Coney Island in Brooklyn. I told him that I remembered ascending the very first hill and getting to the top and attempting to scream and nothing coming out. The next moment I recalled was my date asking me if I was okay. Then the young man laughed, loudly and smiled. He said, “that was a long time ago, huh?” I told him it was a lifetime ago, but that not that many years later, I had another adventure when I rode the cable cars for my first visit to San Francisco. I had gotten on the bottom, where they started, at the Powell and Hyde intersection. It began to climb the famous hills and my travelling companion told me that up ahead we would be getting off. He pointed to a street corner and as we moved along I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss the street and promptly jumped off the moving cable car. People screamed. I sort of did a barrel roll into a green car, if memory serves. I turned around and the cable car had stopped and I saw people get off. I was confused. I had seen too many commercials of people getting on and off by jumping. I didn’t know they actually stopped. I was a bit sore but laughing. I would know for the next time. My student laughed again and told me I was weird. He smiled and asked me whether I had any more stories. I said that I actually did have one more that came to mind and I began by explaining that a friend and I travelled into Mexico from Arizona to do some shopping. We went through customs and went to a restaurant, crossing over a railroad track and up a hill (it’s always a hill). After lunch we retraced our steps to go toward the shopping. Where the track was, was now a freight train, about 100 cars long. It was stopped. My friend was anxious to get to the shops and we watched several people go up the ladder on the side of a car, cross the top and down the other side. It looked fairly benign. I encouraged my friend to go first. She proceeded up, over and down. I was a little worried but told myself that I had already seen many people do what I was going to do. I started up and got to the top and shimmied across and then started down. I heard a sound and a whistle and I realized the train was slowly starting to move. I froze. I panicked. I heard a voice (my friend) shouting to me “Climb down!! We have shopping to do, so jump! ” So I jumped. No injuries just a bit of dust and then on to the shops. In retrospect, I have no idea how I did it. My student’s attention was absolutely riveted. “For real?” he asked. I nodded. “Wow!” he said. “I would never had thought that by looking at you.” I smiled.
That moment, was more than twenty years ago. It sits in my memory of things I never, ever, considered I could do. Yet I did. I was not faster than a speeding bullet nor more powerful than a locomotive and I would never leap over a tall building. I just faced a situation and was not a scaredy cat, in that moment. I try to use those moments to inject the kids with the idea that we all might have superhero moments. It combines a bit of Lucille Ball(who they don’t know) with human and compassionate lessons. I don’t tell those stories too often but once in a while, I put on my imaginary cape and I fly.
Enjoy the weekend. Fly safely.