The way we are, and the way we want to be seen, are undermined by our fears. There is something deeply personal about the things that scare us, and fear is one of those emotional states that it is impossible to hide. To see the fear of another person is to see something about them they may not wish to be seen, but it serves as a strange reminder of our quite animal instincts.
As adults, we are under pressure to keep the fear under wraps, and as a teacher, it is an even greater imperative. It is not a desire to seem masculine that causes me to hide my fear, but a desire to reassure the kids not to be scared. When teaching, I feel bolstered against my fears far more than in my day to day life.
My fear of spiders is not an incapacitating fear but like the overwhelming majority of people (right…?) I find them intrinsically creepy. I don’t like the way they move, their spindly little frames, the fact that they are silent and they move so quick. If a large one was on this carpet in my living room as I type this, and it moved towards me at great speed, I would shriek, get on the sofa and try to throw my National Geographic at it.
When I took my Year 5 kids camping last week, this was not an option. As I was saying goodnight to the kids, two of my boys called me over to their tent with a very panicked ‘SIRRRRRRR!’ I went over and they were right over at one corner of the tent, wrapped up small in their sleeping bags, looking with open eyes at the other corner of their tent. ‘Can you get it out, it’s massive!’.
It was a large spider. It was about 90 percent leg, the type that creep me out the most.
“Can you not get it?” I offered, earnestly.
“No”, they answered immediately.
“OK then…”. I grabbed a piece of paper, feeling my heart racing in my chest. “I’ll just try to knock it on here.”
Like a Hitchcock film, I slowly moved my arm up towards the spider. It crept into the corner. I got the boys to stand up behind me shining their torches high so I could see what I was doing. The moving light source made it look like it moved.
“Get it!” they whisper-shouted.
I swallowed deep and lifted the paper to directly below the spider, and tried to nudge the tent. I didn’t want to take them to a Forest Education Centre and then climb into their tent at night to murder living creatures with a wordsearch. I nudged it.
IT RAN ACROSS THE ROOF OF THE TENT!
In horror, I uttered a phrase which rhymes with ‘hit the bed’, and apologised profusely as they started laughing their heads off at the night of me falling back breathlessly. They implored me to get it out.
“ImmaGetIt ImmaGetIt ImmaGetIt” I repeated as I recomposed and moved the paper back towards the spider that was darting about on the roof. The kids squeezed themselves further into the corner. It moved and I knocked it and it fell into the paper.
“Argh!” I accidentally screamed. I folded the corners over, making it clear that I was trying not to kill it. The kids were grabbing at me, giddily, trying to throw me and the spider out of the tent. I swan dived out through the zips and flung the paper across the field, feeling like I had just escaped a decade as a hostage.
Those two boys have seen a side of me that almost nobody has ever seen.
A couple of hours later and the kids had been in their tents for ages and the torchlights had dimmed. The whispering had sunk away and as far as we were concerned, the kids were asleep. We three teachers were in the clubhouse eating Pringles, charging our phones and talking about the day. It was our twenty minutes of rest from the kids.
I was getting concerned about the sounds of laughter and music coming from a neighbouring field. I have an intense paranoia when leading school trips as it is, but to be leading one at midnight in the middle of a field, my paranoia was heightened. My colleagues were humouring me, telling me to sit down and ignore it. I tried but then it was getting on my nerves. I stood silently outside the clubhouse, looking into the darkness listening to the voices. Deep breaths. I felt tired.
I decided there was nothing really happening, so turned back and went to my colleagues. As I went to sit down with them, the most chilling deafening indecipherably awful sound tore across the field from the kids’ tents. It repeated again and again, no words, just a shriek.
We three teachers looked at each other, equally petrified. I ran over and as I did so, I identified which tent it was coming from and which kid, from the voice. This weird deep scream continued, and I felt absolutely terrified. As I ran to the tent, I called the boy’s name again and again trying to reassure him. I told him it was me. The side of the tent was shaking and he was screaming, clawing at the zip to get out.
At this point, by the way, due to the intense fatigue of having had just two hours of sleep the night before due to kids’ homesickness, my mind went a bit odd and I immediately considered whether in some ‘Babadook-esque’ twist, I myself was the thing terrifying him and it was me casting my gangly long-fingered shadow on the tents that had caused him to scream in the first place. I was wrong though, but good to share my errant thoughts…
The zip was trapped on his side, having picked up the cloth of the sleeping bag, and I was shunting it across from the outside, trying to open it. His screaming quietened a bit and he began babbling other kids’ names. I pulled the zip across and opened the door, saying “It’s OK It’s OK it’s just a dream.”
I presumed he had woken up and that’s why the screaming stopped, but he hadn’t. He leaned in towards me and his eyes were wide, too wide, open – I held his arms and saw that his eyes were kind of glazed over. Seeing but not.
“Are you OK?” I offered, having literally no idea what to do but knowing that it is distressing to wake a sleepwalker.
He said “Toilet.” so I walked with him to the bucket tent and waited outside. I walked back with him to his tent afterwards, lighting the way with my torch. I said goodnight and he didn’t acknowledge it. I said quietly for him to get back into his sleeping bag and he did. I zipped up his tent loosely, in case he needed to get out later.
As soon as I stood up, rather than calming down, my heart began to race faster. The noise he made and his response when I was talking to him was almost supernatural. As a boy, he is self-controlled, keen and proud – I just couldn’t process the things he was doing as being a product of the same boy. Perhaps all kids do things like this and I just haven’t experienced it as I am not a parent, but it was far more scary than the spider.
The next day, when I woke up, he was walking past my tent. I asked if he was ok, and he was beaming his regular huge smile. I asked him if he slept well and he said he did. I was fascinated. I asked whether he remembered, and he had no idea what I was talking about.
I am not sure why all of this felt significant enough for me to write about it like this, because I don’t feel I am moving towards any sort of ‘conclusion’. I think the main thing that stood out for me is how our fears, which strike us uncontrollably, make us seem so much more human and more vulnerable. My own show of panic with the spider amused my kids but undermined the way I normally present myself with them. They felt that they ‘had something on me’ by having seen my mask slip. And with my pupil who was locked into his night terrors, for me it served as a reminder of how incredible our brains our, and how fascinating sleep is. It made me feel closer to the kid – it is useful for us, as teachers, to acknowledge that we and our pupils are both equally capable of fear.
As a reward for reaching the end of this post, I can give you a photograph from the trip which may well cause you to access part of the fear spectrum you have not yet visited.