The second day of first grade, we had a fire drill. While the rest of the kids tried to break from the line and run around the playground, I broke out in a rash because OHMYGOD IS THERE A FIRE WHY ARE THERE SIRENS.
School is not hospitable to anxious children.
I hated school. It was equal parts boring and terrifying. In third grade, one of my friends was surprised to learn this. “But you’re smart. Smart kids like school.” I was aghast. I thought EVERYONE hated school. Later, I was shocked to learn that some children even DISLIKED summer, because they were bored without their friends.
This is something I never understood.
I was a weird little kid. I liked reading Heidi and watching Shirley Temple movies and nursing my convalescent Victorian doll back to health (she was susceptible to the damp night air). I didn’t let my mom put bows in my hair and organized sports mystified me. I was happiest running around the yard with my brother, pretending to live in a hut in Australia and making mud pies.
In a bigger town, in a different place, school might’ve been different for me. Maybe I would have found other children who obsessively read biographies of Helen Keller and loved Peter Pan and listened to The Sound of Music instead of the Spice Girls. But most kids in my classes had names like Crystal and Hunter and wanted four wheelers for Christmas. Nothing wrong with any of that, we just didn’t connect.
So how do you survive school as a neurotic child who feels threatened and overwhelmed by the paradoxically chaotic and stifling structure of school? My friends, I had it down to an art form.
1. BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS.
If you’re an academically-oriented kid in an elementary classroom, odds are you’ll have a lot of time on your hands. It is vital to become acquainted with your classroom’s bookshelf. You will find favorites (Matilda) and you will find texts that make you ask your mother what periods are because you thought they were dots at the end of a sentence (thanks Judy Blume). During your weekly class visits to the library, you function like a well-oiled machine; you skip right past that red dot shit (no thanks, Junie B. Jones) and go straight to the purple (Jacob Have I Loved), where there are VITAL decisions to be made. Choose poorly–too short, uninteresting–and you have doomed yourself to a boring week of re-reading the tattered classroom collection. The books are your escape. CHOOSE WISELY.
Unfortunately, because this is school, you can’t just read all the time. Sometimes there are math and science lessons or D.A.R.E. talks and you have to pretend to pay attention. Key word: pretend. Really you are imagining a colony of Borrowers living inside your school or planning an epic Oregon trail adventure for your Barbies when you get home from school that afternoon (Clara has to die. Clara always has to die. Cholera or dysentery today?).
3. Write and draw.
You make lots of illustrated books. Usually they involve ghosts. Or families of cheetahs. Sometimes both. Go ahead and draw Clara’s tombstone while you’re at it.
On pretty bad days, like when there’s an evil substitute, you gotta go deep. You are an unjustly accused prisoner serving out her time, or a spy infiltrating this oppressive institution, or you’re secretly a vampire (I don’t know why this particular story got me through the day, but it worked like a freaking charm).
5. Have a happy home life.
Things are good at home. You’re loud and sassy and happy because you are loved and you are safe. You can’t wait to run into your dad’s arms at 6 pm, and you eat dinner with your family every night. At bedtime, your mom reads to you and your dad sings lullabies as your little brother falls asleep on his chest.
You don’t fully realize it yet, but you’re really, really lucky. And you’ll like school one day. So much, in fact, that you just never leave.
GO GET ‘EM, TIGER.