Alright guys, I heard from enough of you about the elementary school post that I feel pretty confident in saying I was not alone in my childhood anxiety/weirdness (there are dozens of us! DOZENS!). That got me thinking: for anxious kids, it’s not just the classroom that holds difficulties. The world outside of school was still its own grim, looming obstacle course of clear and present dangers.
Early on, I realized that the other kids around me weren’t constantly worried about contracting AIDS, losing their parents to car wrecks, or gang violence in rural Alabama. I was also just socially savvy enough to realize that lunchtime conversation revolved around the Spice Girls and (the ubiquitous) four-wheelers, and any suggestion that we were all in IMMINENT PERIL was best kept to myself.
(RE: HIV and gang violence, thank the teacher who vigilantly educated our fourth grade class on the gamut of ’90s urban legends. I begged my parents not to flash their lights at cars and warned them not to use pay phones .)
The Perils of D.A.R.E.
One day in first grade, Officer Greg walked into our classroom (our classroom was a trailer. It was very loud when it rained. Again, Alabama), introduced himself, and began to educate us about the dangers of alcohol abuse.
(Side note: my brother and I adored Officer Greg. He was just doing what he had to do, and no hard feelings. He later became Police Chief, and a very good chief was he. You go, Officer Greg.)
As I listened to Officer Greg describe the terrible things that would happen to me, my brain, and everyone I loved if I took a sip of beer (that was what I took away, at least), my skin started to go blotchy and my mind raced with all the ways I had already destroyed my life. When he asked if there were any questions, my hand was UP.
6 year old Anna: “What about root–”
Officer Greg: “No no no, root beer is NOT beer. Root beer is Coke.* It’s safe.”
(Root beer that wasn’t really beer? Island pronounced “AYE-land” instead of “IS-land”? First grade was full of counter-intuitive truths we were supposed to accept without questioning.)
I avoided root beer for the next three years. You know. Just to be safe.
It soon became clear that Officer Greg’s visits were a regular thing, and the next item on the agenda was tobacco use. While of course all of us six year olds were encouraged to stand strong and just say “NO” to the roaming gangs of third graders and the fourth graders lurking around corners waiting to ply us with cigarettes, the curriculum spent the most time on the dangers of second-hand smoke.
Second-hand smoke was NEARLY as bad as actually smoking yourself, which meant that you were NEARLY as sure to get cancer and die a horrible death sans vocal cords. We were urged to nag/beg/chide our relatives who smoked into quitting. The dangers of secondhand smoke are real and serious, yes. That I do not dispute. Somewhere in there, though, I missed the part about it including sustained, indoor exposure. Instead, I concluded that any time I passed a smoker and smelled the fumes, I was coating my lungs in carcinogens and breathing in an early death.
I remember trying to hold my breath in the local Pizza Hut while someone puffed away on the smoking side, nearly driving myself to hyperventilate in my efforts to take in as little smoke as possible. And oh my God, I just realized I can remember when people could smoke in restaurants and that ages me the same way Baby Boomers age themselves by remembering cars without seat belts.
But the most memorable event of that first year of D.A.R.E. was how I got skip P.E. for an entire unit, or about 3 weeks. It was all due to this infamous piece of propaganda: Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue. The scene which scared me starts at 21:20, where our young hero sees how his face will MELT INTO A DECREPIT MESS in a mere five years if he continues to smoke pot. For some reason, this drug-ravaged cartoon face was the stuff of my nightmares. I mean, it really, really freaked me out for some reason. Again, I managed to hold it together externally because all the other six year olds seemed fine with what appeared onscreen, but inside I was a hot mess.
I don’t remember how it came about, but I must’ve told my teacher about “THE FACE” (as I thought of it), or maybe she noticed how I became a rash-ridden mess when it was time to go to P.E. again. Either way, somehow she found out that the D.A.R.E. stuff deeply bothered me, and she just . . . let me skip it. I got to play with the counting toys and color and read while she did paperwork at her desk. When we moved on to square dancing in P.E., I went back. I don’t think she ever told my parents, and I still received a good grade for the missed unit. Mrs. Holdridge was a wonderful teacher in many different ways (she is the one that introduced me to strawberry jam, after all), but this is the kindness I will always remember.
Maybe I could forgive the D.A.R.E. program if it had, you know, actually worked. But instead it only painted a picture of high school for me where big kids would shove me against lockers and literally try to force drugs down my throat, or hold me at knife-point until I inhaled a joint. Never mind that I grew up in a small town where teen pregnancies and high school dropout rates were a(n exponentially) bigger problem than ecstasy parties.
Note from future self to neurotic first grade Anna: No one can force you to take drugs. Also, beer is good. You’re welcome.
*In Alabama and much of the southern U.S., “Coke” = catch-all term for all soft drinks/pop/soda. As in, “What kind of Coke you want, sweetie?” “Sprite, please.”)