Fear in First Grade

One of our students, lets call her Rose, has flourished all summer. Every week she has grown stronger, more able in everything she works on. Her successes have brought her the most charming, lovely smiles, and she practically glows as she works on her reading. As we work with her we each find ourselves raising the bar, expecting more, and constantly getting it. Sometimes she seemed like Icarus, spiraling continuously upward, flying higher and higher. Her work had been so amazing, her progress so rapid, that we never saw the residue of failure, lurking in the shadows of her mind. Until one day, in raising the bar, Amy, asking for more and more quickly, crossed some kind of threshold. The charming girl with the lovely smile threw the teachers manual at Amy, banged her head, and ran to the bathroom to try to recover. Rose didn’t fly too close to the sun — she was stabbed and stopped by sharp, stinging points of doubt.


The rapid transformation, from immensely successful learner to frightened girl reminded me that we each can carry the pointed, dangerous spear points of previous failure within us. Our wonderful brains can be charging rapidly forward, upward, onward — only to suddenly buck like a frightened horse at the sight of a snake on the trail. Not just stopping, but losing all in the wave of fear that those pointed little failures recall with such power. Rose was suddenly reminded of the terrible experiences, the frustrating failures, that she had throughout first grade. The spears punctured her hard won confidence and suddenly brought back every fear that she had experienced in first grade. Her response was fight and flight, triggered by all of that emotion, emotion that had lain beneath the surface throughout her happy successful summer.


We must take risks to advance, we must reach out, sometimes looking graceless and exposed as we take a chance to do something new, something radical. Each time we take that risk, spread-eagled in flight, we are vulnerable to those tiny spears we have within us. “Will I make this leap?”


Those tiny fears can crop up despite extensive proof that we have nothing to fear, that we are doing just fine. One of my daughters was preparing for college some time ago. Throughout much of her school life she was extremely successful, especially as she blossomed in her last two years in High School. Her grades and her level of effort climbed together, but despite this, she still lived in the shadow of her second grade self.

When she was in second grade she appeared sad and withdrawn. She would come home appearing to carry bricks in her backpack, looking pinched and frightened. Her teacher told my wife that she suspected my daughter had “ADD, the quiet kind.” Her big sister overhearing us discuss how worried her little sister appeared said something deeply profound. “Well dad, we are kids, and school is our work. If it isn’t going well we are going to worry.” Third graders have the clearest worldview. We talked with my daughter about what was happening to her at school. “Oh, its fine. I am just trying to be invisible.” This from a girl who was solid brass at home or in gatherings of my large, talkative and assertive extended family. “Trying to be invisible” became her modus operandi for most of her school life. The thoughtful, observant and successful girl we knew at home was almost never the girl that her teachers and fellow students saw.


The girl that was not invited to take calculus by the math department, was not the girl who worked hard all summer to be ahead of the game, prepare for calculus, and raise her SAT scores. She became increasingly ready to go to an engineering school. The girl we knew would skewer us with a nasty crack and a subtle smile, but that girl was appreciated only by a select group of her closest friends. “I don’t know why but I seem to hang out with kids much smarter than I am.” The maximum merit scholarships she won did not convince her that she was fittingly with “the smart kids.” She was still trying to be invisible when a perfect AP score came in that summer. Finally she banished her long time fear and let us celebrate her intelligence, her hard work, and her wonderful level of effort. As she prepared for her first year in college she saw herself the way we see her, and the tiny spears were covered and hidden well within her—and I sincerely hope they are dulled forever.


I think of Rose, and the struggle she is going through now, as she faces second grade—her confidence has been bolstered and the fears are well hidden again. I think of my daughter’s journey, from the frightened girl who hid behind invisibility for those many years in school to the confident, beautiful girl we took to college. I pray Rose will dull the points of those spears and be the triumphant girl we see, and I pray my daughter will always be that woman.

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