Discussing Fear in the Classroom

Part of our First Year Experience program is a class called Studio. Studio is a creative space for students to practice the skills they’re working on in their other coursework via self-driven projects. This spring, I was invited to speak to one of the freshman cohorts in my House (House 4) about fear. The students had self-selected the topic of fear for a semester-long study, and they were inviting professors, staff, and other adults they knew to come talk to them about their fears. Of course, I agreed.

But the looseness of the topic scared me (haha). What about fears? My fears now? My fears when I was their age? How I cope with my fears? How much of me should I talk about? I didn’t want to overshare–which I am pretty much prone to do with any stranger walking down the street–but I didn’t know how to talk about my real fears without getting pretty personal.

As with most things in my life, I decided to be real. (Is there any other way to be?) Tell them the truth. They are adults, after all–right?

Of course, I had to sit and think about my fears and how they have evolved over my life.  My fears have shifted, but they have always centered around one thing: children.

This is the abbreviated version of my fears that I shared with a class of 20 of our freshmen:

When I was your age, I was afraid of getting pregnant. I was in love–so in love–with my first boyfriend, but I was convinced that the minute I had sex with him I would become pregnant. In my mind, we could use 100 condoms and I’d still get pregnant. My biological mom got pregnant with me the fall of her senior year in high school the first time she had sex. The *only* time she had sex with the man who is my biological father. My life was built upon this story: You will get pregnant when you have sex–immediately. It was genetically predetermined. I was also told that I could never have an abortion because I could have been aborted. My mom is a rabid pro-lifer, and she had no problem telling me that I could have been a fetus in a trashcan. She even showed me pictures. I was terrified to have sex.

But, of course, I eventually did because I was young and horny and pretty much the last virgin on earth (in my circle of friends). I lived my entire twenties afraid I’d get pregnant even though I was on the pill most of those years. I took  pregnancy tests so regularly, I should have bought stock in First Response. I lived in perpetual fear that I would get knocked up and have to figure out what to do, but that didn’t stop me from having sex. That just goes to show how you can logically fear something but then you still emotionally do the opposite. It makes no sense and yet it does.

And then I met my husband and those fears subsided. Finally! Even before we got married I knew he was “the one,” and I thought if we accidentally got pregnant, who cared?! I was going to marry this guy anyway. For a few years the fear subsided. And then we got married, and we got pregnant on accident. Condoms, my friends, don’t always work. But we were thrilled! So happy. I was 31 and totally ready to have a baby.

But that baby didn’t make it. The day after my 12-week mark (the time when you tell the entire fucking world you are pregnant) I started bleeding. We went to the doctor and had an ultrasound and the baby was dead; it had stopped growing around 8 weeks and it had taken a month for my body to realize it. I labored that baby and pregnancy out in our bathroom into our toilet. It felt like I’d never stop bleeding or crying. Then I had to tell the entire fucking world that I was no longer pregnant. Awful. I went into a 4 month deep depression. I had never been depressed before in my life–not even after my dad died. I would sit on the couch and stare at the wall for hours. I wouldn’t lock our doors at night because I didn’t care if anyone came in to kill me. . .or my husband. I had to unfriend my pregnant friends, who were gracious enough to let me toss them aside for months. That’s when you know who your real friends are.

It was then that I realized my fear had changed: After years of being afraid I would get pregnant, now I was afraid I couldn’t.  And I also realized–very clearly–that I did NOT want to adopt. Even though I was adopted, I knew I could not adopt a baby/kid. I needed to have my own kids or no kids at all. The stakes were high.

Thankfully, I got pregnant about four months later and I started therapy. I saw a therapist weekly my entire pregnancy until my daughter was born and it helped a lot. Then I had my son, two years later. I love them more than anything. They anchor me.

Now my fear has changed again. Two years ago my midwife felt something in my left breast and sent me for a mammogram. They saw something and had to biopsy it, and after weeks of waiting and a very tense doctor’s appointment, I was told it was benign but I needed to continue monitoring it. Those three weeks I felt I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was living my life outside of my body–like I was already ghost of myself.

And I realized my new fear is that I am afraid of being a sick parent. I grew up with a dad who was sick my entire life, and it sucked. SUCKED. Nothing about it was good. You might argue that it taught me empathy, sympathy, blah blah blah, but it was just plain horrible. I am terrified of being THAT sick parent. Of making my kids’ childhoods filled with hospitals, needles, bills, fear of dying, awful smells, being shuffled to other people’s houses constantly, emergencies, etc. That’s the fear I live with now.

I didn’t want to just leave them with a depressing catalog of my fears for the past 20 years. “Ta da! Those are my fears–peace out!” So I xeroxed and gave them the chapters that I go to again and again from Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life by Dear Sugar. I told them that this is one of my bibles, one of the texts I go to repeatedly when the shit hits the fan. This book is a collection of essay responses from an advice column that Cheryl Strayed wrote for years anonymously as “Sugar” for the online literary magazine The Rumpus.

I gave them “The Human Scale”–when a mother writes in to Sugar afraid her baby has cancer.

I gave them “How You Get Unstuck”–when a woman writes after her a late miscarriage, wrought with depression.

I gave them something else that I don’t remember, but now I wish it was “The Obliterated Place”–a dad trying to find the will to live after his son is killed by a drunk driver.

I read excerpts from these passages aloud to the class. I told them that when I felt my fears bubble into my throat like bile, I pull this book off the shelf and read for a bit. I encouraged them to find their own book like this one. If I were a rich woman I would have given them all copies of the book–they wanted copies. They wanted *my* copy–right there, immediately, in class. Several students begged for it. I apologized and said I couldn’t give it to them (I felt horrible!). I had given my first copy to a friend and lost all my annotations, but I told them the librarian had ordered five copies for them to check out.

I had to laugh when I read this article in New York Magazine this past week. I have probably given two dozen copies of this book to various girlfriends in the past three years. I am not alone! I love that it has a cult following.

After the class of fear I went home and freaked out. I overshared. I knew that would happen. I had talked about sex–my sex life–with my students. I had talked to my students about my uterus! What was I thinking? I went to work the next day and apologized to the graduate coordinator who runs their Studio class. Amid my bumbling apology she gracefully interrupted me. “What are you talking about?!” she said. “They needed that. Some started crying after you left. That was perfect.

The semester is now officially over and the students made their own houses of fear and presented them last week. They were incredible on many levels. Here are a few:





A week or so ago I was listening to NPR and making dinner when this piece came on the radio: “At Pa. School, Teens Build Empathy By Confiding in a Crowd“. While listening to it, I got chills. Listen: It’ll blow your mind–the lives these kids lead and the courage they have not only to get up every morning and live out the life given to them, but to share their deepest fears with THEIR ENTIRE SCHOOL. On a stage. At a podium. With a microphone. Wow.

Amid all the education reforms and programs for “at risk” youth out there, I come back again and again to power behind honest storytelling in the classroom about who we are and how our messy and beautiful lives inform us. I never, ever regret it.