Let’s talk about fear

Of course the terms I would rather use include trepidation, hesitancy, or reluctance. Fear seems so stark, too strong a word to describe the feeling I get as I marshal my resources, gather my gumption, brace myself and go meet that class.
Fear before teaching? Before greeting a boisterous line of bubbly seven year olds or know-no-patience fourth graders? Fear of children seeking the the things that children seek: excitement, fun, attention, distraction, etc? What on earth is there to be afraid of?

I stopped saying 'practice makes perfect' because nothing can ever be perfect. I know it's just a saying but it's easy to get attached to the perfect part. I've been practicing showing up for kids for most of my adult years and I am no closer to perfect than when I started. I am practiced. 'Practice makes practiced' is true but has no ring. So there I am, practiced and handling my reservations (there's another nice term) like a too hot potato with no one to toss it to. I appear before students, practiced and masked, moderately prepared, while hoping against hope that the worst that could happen, does not.
The worst that could happen is this giant unknown - unpracticed, unrehearsed, unpredictable - that travels with me, never fully identified but weighty nonetheless. Visibly invisible, kind of like my fear (there, I said it!), the giant unknown turns out to be a me rather than a you problem. Turns out, the giant unknown is me. I arrive practiced and masked but know, by chance, by circumstance, by 9:45- the mask may drop, and I shall be revealed - the monster within becomes the monster without- and then we have a real problem on our hands.

Routines help. Rituals soothe. Sometimes there's a groove that cradles us all, holds us captive in an engrossing, absorbing kind of way. We run out of time, happily. Sometimes all my practice produces mysteriously inventive interludes; I exceed my wildest expectations. We experience a learning high. We - the kids and I and our ridiculous imaginations - pull it together and pull it off - the impossible possible: A good time, no take-backs.

A balancing act, the act of balancing. but that's exactly not it. Balance remains a myth, a thing we talk about in the abstract because we know it hardly exists in reality. I know no balance. I am present and I am praying. My spirit perturbed and jumpy; vigilant and at attention - time seeps through me from one end of class to the other. Not even the illusion of balance, my body performs a lucid survival ethic. I go down on one knee, I stand on my hands, I do cartwheel of uncertainty.
My education is physical.

Directions, instructions, reminders, requests - a relentless parade of communications. Containers for procedure, often leaky, never airtight. Written, oral; direct, in passing; an elaboration, a gesture. A shopping cart's pile of options, so often an excess. What needs saying can be hard to find. It takes time to dig through all that's there. So I improvise and miss the mark or catch the drift. Hearing and listening are not the same thing. I employ loud music to cover my tracks. What you see is what you hear is what's happening. What is happening?

Hello, experience, my old friend, home of all my educated guesses. Even knowing what I know, having seen what I've seen, when the going gets tough, I'm sure that's when you hide. I become a novice all over again. but not young. No, an old and tired and uninspired novice. How it feels to meet my match, to catch the resistance, to counter the pushback. I throw up my shield and appeal to their better angels. From the outside looking in, I am holding my own. I am breathing through the storm. Disaster averted. Miraculously, we are back on track.

The fear, the trepidation, the dread, the frightful anticipation - These all reside in me, in my practice. 
I recently received the most generous valentine from a students who wrote:
"You are a great PE teacher and always make the best out of terrible situations."
The best out of terrible situations... 
The fear and the discovery, the fear and the movement, the fear and the next time.
make the best out of terrible
make, not take; best out of, not best instead of
make the best out of terrible.
grow alongside fear; change while scared; shift under stress.

So this is what it means to be seen.
Sherri (black woman in a fleece red panda onesie wearing a black face mask) stands in a small gym with equipment set out in an obstacle course with mats, benches, wall bars, low balance beams.
Subject as masked red panda.

8 thoughts on “Let’s talk about fear

  1. That last line, Sherri. Just … so much.
    I’ve been thinking a lot about your book, as my kiddo is starting to learn that her simple being-ness is not enough in a physical education regimen that focuses almost solely on skill in team sports. I think I need to go back and read it again, remind myself of ways to talk with her about this, about her whole self and false limitations.

    1. Dear Antonia, I hope your child also learns about all the ways that she is a marvel in her being-ness. I’m sorry if PE is not a particularly nurturing space for her. I hope she finds opportunities to enjoy movement on her own terms.

  2. “What on earth is there to be afraid of?” Everything. Nothing. EVERYTHING. You know, as I read this (I’ve read this several times now, and I pick up on different lines and ideas each and every time), I can picture you behind that keyboard, mind roving from one thing to another. Everything right now. It’s big and complex and unknown. And it’s tiny and insignificant and silly. All of it, all at once. Making the best of terrible situations. Taking the most out of terrible situations.

    I hope you DO feel seen. I hope I’m a person who can make others – you included – feel seen. Thank you for this beautiful slice.

  3. You have a Shakespearean talent for having words function on multiple levels simultaneously–“My education is physical,” and “This is what it is to be seen.” Also, the irony (in revealing fear, you exhibit courage) truly resonates with me. Dimensions seem to fold back on themselves in this reflection, revealing many layers of meaning.

    1. Thank you so much for spending time with my writing. I find that the layers only reveal themselves to me *after* I’ve re-read what I’ve written or through someone else’s eyes.

  4. I love the vulnerability in your slice. The inner monologue and word choice were impactful. I also loved your thoughts on “practice makes perfect”. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  5. This is all so true. The fact that no matter how much practice you have there is never perfect. That balance is something that doesn’t exist. All first year teachers should read this, so they know they are in good company and even the most experienced feel that fear of being unmasked.

  6. Wow, just wow. So many layers of meaning and words strung together so artfully to contemplate the multiple dimensions of life. “Not even the illusion of balance, my body performs a lucid survival ethic.” So many brilliant riddles to showcase how it feels to live in this reality. I hear and see you.

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