When you have an anxiety disorder, your entire sense of self is thwarted by your anxiety’s sense of self. Imagine anxiety as an adult arm-wrestling a baby. Your true sense of self is that baby and it’s always losing to the preternatural strength of anxiety. A haughty glance from a stranger doesn’t stick to the average passerby, but for those running on anxious fuel, it can topple even the most sublime morning.
Remember being a middle schooler walking down the street and that sense of flop sweat you got when cooler kids knocked you when passing, laughter cackling in their wake and up your spine? The minty dread filling your lungs, shame heating your skin as the flap of reality you try to keep nailed shut lifts, exposing the truth everyone else can see just looking at you–that your existence is not only unfortunate but a misfortune? For a kid with anxiety, these moments are “small t” traumatic, but they happen so often they shape your life. They accumulate, filling your days and dreams, your diary entries, your entire identity.
Middle school is made up of hundreds of those moments. For kids free of anxiety, these moments suck, but they manage to recover, reset and start again. For those with anxiety, these moments are torturous and paralyzing. They stick, and like sick cells, they metastasize. You grow more aware that something is wrong, but for the life of you, you can’t quite identify it. It’s not concrete, it’s abstract. One day you realize that what’s wrong with you is…you. There is literally nothing you can do but work day and night to hide this central fact from others. Something about who you are is fundamentally wrong. Your biggest fear is that others will begin to see what you’re desperately trying to hide. To be exposed for this wrongness–one you know means you are broken and disposable–equals the end of your life. That’s how you think, how you feel when you’re a child.
For a young person with anxiety, being exposed for the wrongness that lives inside you is a terror that never goes away. You are constantly trying to dodge the thing that makes you most ashamed. You pray thousands of times a day that no one will call attention to the wrongness running inside you that makes you so unlike the others. You thank the God you don’t believe in every night that you escaped the day without being found out, that you’ve succeeded to evade the inevitable spotlight that will burn your shameful flaws into the slow-drying cement of people’s minds. But your body thrums, every day, with the vibrating fear that you’ll be known for the thing that shames you most.
You have no control over who will out you; when it will happen or even how, but a few times a week without fail, it’s always an adult who does the most damage. Some teacher calls on you when your hand isn’t raised, threatening to topple your entire empire. In that moment, when all heads turn from their desks to look at you, when the teacher is waiting, when you haven’t heard what’s been asked because your brain has been filled with nothing more than the cacophonous prayerful incantations of DON’T CALL ON ME, DO NOT LOOK MY WAY, I AM BUSY DOING IMPORTANT NOTE-TAKING, PLEASE I BEG OF YOU, DO NOT ASK ME ANY QUESTIONS BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW, I AM SO DUMB, I AM WRONG, AND MY LIFE WILL END IF YOU EXPOSE ME. PLEASE DON’T MURDER ME. Your heart has been knocked loose from its shingle, the creases in your palms have grown humid and damp, and that slow creeping mortification has dropped like a wig to the floor. All the faces are waiting on you, smirks, eyes alive with schadenfreude.
When you call on a kid with anxiety, you are doing nothing more than “small t” traumatizing them. You are discouraging them from participating, you are creating in them reasons to avoid you and your class. You are hurting these forming brains more than you are helping them. TEACHERS, PLEASE STOP CALLING ON KIDS WHOSE HANDS ARE NOT RAISED.
Kids don’t learn when they’re afraid. Kids don’t learn when they’re forced to participate. Kids learn when they trust you. When they’re comfortable. When they’re engaged in positive, idea-generating ways. “But how do we get a student out of their comfort zone?” you might ask. Well, why not ask your student, in private, after class, how you can work together to get them out of their comfort zone? Because here’s the thing, it’s not up to you to decide the parameters of a child’s comfort zone. We have different learning styles, and a classroom environment doesn’t work for all of us. The environment itself, for many kids, is already outside of a kid’s comfort zone, and they’re existing in it all day, every day. They are trying to stay inside their comfort zone because they are so fucking uncomfortable inside the one that exists. For many anxious kids, the system itself is a danger zone, and it’s the system that needs to change so that it’s more comfortable for all kids. Yet we force even our most sensitive children to make their teachers more comfortable by meeting the teachers where they’re at, instead of demanding that teachers meet students where they are at.
We pressure our kids to conform to the institutional machinations of our world without ever questioning the institutions themselves. Human beings are variant, ever-evolving people. We are not meant to all exist inside the exact same framework. So, instead of forcing our kids to bend to meet our contours, how about spending more time teaching teachers how to bend to their students?