Learning To Fight What Scares You

Fear is a central fact of my life and my ever-present companion. From the time I noticed that my list for Santa didn’t include the Barbies, makeup or other things the girls in my class wanted,  I knew I was different. No other girl asked for a chemistry set, a BB gun, and walkie-talkies. That, along with the stacks of Spiderman comics in my closet, set me apart and made me afraid that I wasn’t the kind of girl anyone in my family expected.

This led into a pernicious and lingering fear of being judged. When you grow up Southern Baptist, there’s a particular way to gossip about people and still seem godly: the prayer chain. It sounds kind of like this: 

“Lord, we just want to raise up Lorene’s daughter, Father God, and her drinking. Lord Jesus, we grieve that her babies have different daddies, even though all the men she knows are nice…”

For my Meemaw’s sake, I knew a baseline expectation for me was to stay off the prayer chain. Waiting in line at the grocery store in my small town, I heard people talking about my parents. They were one of the first couples to get a divorce – and it was an epic, operatic production involving both those in high standing and those in low places. I learned to achieve to distract away from all the unpleasant truths about my parents and myself. 

Those fears about myself solidified into one central truth: I wasn’t the girl anyone expected me to be because I am a girl who loves girls. That fear of knowing I am gay metastasized into shame.

And that shame is inked into me like a tattoo, burrowed into my bones like arthritis, a taproot of guilt that burrows right into the center of me. You don’t get that out of you overnight. Brene Brown says we measure shame and guilt in people by the way they talk to themselves and the messages they give themselves.

My fear is borne out in messages I’ve fought even today. Fear that boils down to the basic belief that I am not good enough. It creates a strong pull towards being that worst of all F words: Fake. Faking whatever I need to be to make myself somewhat presentable and acceptable, no matter how painful, has been a long act.

But what I’ve learned most about overcoming fear is that even though it’s familiar, it’s also fuel. The same energy that threatens to paralyze me is the same energy that can be turned toward fighting what scares me.

Being authentic is a choice. Being brave is a choice. I’m grateful for books and the ability to find my literary role models. That’s one of the reasons literacy is so powerful because you find that others fight – and win – the same battles.

As promised, here are seven more things I’ve learned after 52 birthdays that I’m sharing this week. These are seven authors who helped me turn fear into faith.

Day Two:  The Best Things I’ve Learned About Fear

  1. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”- Eleanor Roosevelt
  2. “Adhere to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant and broken the monotony of a decorous age. It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, – “Always do what you are afraid to do.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  3.          “The Litany Against Fear 

           I must not fear.
           Fear is the mind-killer.
           Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
           I will face my fear.
           I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
          And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
          Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
          Only I will remain.” Frank Herbert

  1. “You have plenty of courage, I am sure” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.” L. Frank Baum

5. “The very cave you are afraid to enter

            turns out to be the source of

            What you were looking for.

            The damned thing in the cave

            that was so dreaded

            has become the center.”   – Joseph Campbell

6. “Our courage grows for things that affect us deeply, things that open our hearts. Once our heart is engaged, it is easy to be brave.” Margaret Wheatley

  1. “I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.” Elizabeth Gilbert

These quotes are a mantra for me; their words wrapped around me like armor, making me brave and bold when I am scared and ashamed.

Next post: Time

Photo by Tom Margie/CC BY 2.0

The Deep Magic

A takeaway from this last month of speaking and traveling is:

We’re saved by what we create, and by who and what we love.

For me, teaching is always triage – an emergency room where I try to apply reading and writing to the wounds my students have. Sometimes, a good story can save your life. Not always, but sometimes, and that’s enough for me. 

Reading aloud is a small thing, but it’s what I love. Creating learning experiences where the clock stops, where I don’t worry about how much weight I’m gaining or how I look when I turn to the side, and where we – whomever I’m with – are transported by story. Either our own stories or those we love by others. 

Nothing gives me energy like reading a really good piece of literature aloud to an audience who really needs it. The photo above is a gift of energy from my former students, Nat and Karen.

About a week ago, I was so exhausted, I thought I would burst into tears in the canned vegetable aisle at the grocery store.

Then I read this:

“Would you come read Skippyjon Jones to our kids in the afterschool program?” Nat messaged me.

At first, I thought: “I’m too tired.” Then I worried: “I have too much to do.”

But what you love pulls you. And so reading pulled me out of my pinched and crabby feelings.

Skippyjon Jones, a masterful series by Judy Schachner about a cat who thinks he’s a chihuahua and imagines epic adventures for himself, is a can’t-miss read aloud if you go all in on it. My juniors and seniors always want me to read it to them. I was a little worried about reading to small people because I don’t normally work with those under age 14.

And, the kids in their after-school class, Karen confided, “think reading is evil. They hate it.”

To read aloud well – to transport both yourself and your audience – you have to be unself-conscious. It’s taken me a long time to get there and even so, I still get shy.

I’ve stood at the back of my classroom because I was afraid to read “The Tell-Tale Heart” like I knew it should be read.

One of my most memorable experiences was reading Ray Bradbury’s “The Last Night of The World” to a group of seventh-grade boys who told me that reading is stupid. The story is mostly dialogue between a husband and wife, but the sense of dread that Bradbury creates chilled those inner-city kids on a hot August morning.

The story’s horror comes from knowing that the end is really coming and there’s nothing you can do. What is there to do, Bradbury asks us, but those last little comforting habits like hugging someone close, washing the dishes, and saying, “I love you” one last time?

“That felt real, Miss,” Anthony said. “It was like a scary ride that stays with you.”

That’s what the best read-alouds and the best lessons feel like to me: a ride that kind of scares me, but also gives me that adrenaline rush from doing something fun.

And we don’t give ourselves or our students enough fun because of so much pressure for “achievement.”

So, I’m giving you permission, just like I always have to give myself, to have fun. Read something you love. Go all in. Do the voices. Sell it. Make it feel real.

In this grinding month, give yourself one day to not worry about “the test.” Give yourself  – and most importantly, your students the gift of energy through the pure joy that comes from deliberately designing a day around a story you love.

Deep magic comes from joy.

Create some today by sharing what you love.