I’m still scared of public schools

I realized something the other day. I’m still scared of public schools. I’m not talking about a fear that is intellectually based, or a fear that I see as rational. I’m talking about the sort of fear that comes on you unaware, catches you in its nets, and pulls you down. I’m talking about the kind of fear that bubbles up from inside, from years of habit, from patters of thought you can’t seem to end. I’m talking about the kind of fear that is reflexive and intuitive.

I was taking my daughter to the park. I was bored of the close one, so I took her to one that I’d seen a little further away. It’s a park that’s attached to an elementary school but is open to the public after hours. I pulled into the school parking lot and immediately noticed that there were a number of other cars there. There were random people entering or leaving the school, some with a child in tow, some not. And then I felt it. The fear. The dread. The “turn and run” impulse. And then came the flashbacks.

I was ten. I was holding up a sign at a polling place with my parents, hoping to encourage people to vote for whatever anti-abortion candidate we were stumping for at the time. This particular polling place was at a public school. And I had to go to the bathroom. My mom instructed me to go into the school and find the closest bathroom, and sent one of my siblings with me. Unbeknownst to me, this happened at a time when the children (elementary school?) were out of their classrooms, on the way to recess or to lunch.

The halls were filled with strange children. I was filled with fear. Fear, to be surrounded by so many children I didn’t know. Fear, that someone might ask what I was doing there. Fear, that someone would notice that I was out of place. I held my sibling’s hand tightly and ran to the bathroom, dread flowing through my body, a sort of dread that didn’t fully disappear even when I got back outside to my campaign sign.

I was seventeen. I had to go to a public high school to take a test. I was the only homeschooled student there. My mother dropped me off and I had to find my way to the proper room on my own. Fear. Dread. A sense of panic. The teens who surrounded me looked so different, so foreign, so worldly. What if one of them said something to me? What if a teacher asked what I was doing? Fear. Dread. Ever muscle in my body was aching to run straight out of the building and hide until my mom returned to pick me up, but I forced myself to keep walking. It was like walking through jello, my limbs felt so heavy.

I managed to find the correct room and sat at my assigned table with my eyes on my paper. I didn’t score very well on that test, perhaps because of the fear that continued flowing through my body. Interestingly, leading up to that day it was going into a public high school that I was afraid of, not the test. When the test was over my mother came back to pick me up. As she walked through the halls with me she was obviously totally comfortable with the situation – curious, even, about the posters on the walls and interested in scouting out new teaching strategies. All I wanted was to get OUT. I would have run if I could have, as my body urged me to do. Instead, I stayed focused on getting to the door as fast as I could, pulling my mom along with me and carefully avoiding eye contact with the teens who surrounded me.

I had thought that this fear had disappeared. A few months ago I walked with a friend into a public high school to meet her husband, who taught there. The fear wasn’t so bad then, almost nonexistent, probably because it was after hours (there was no one there) and because I was with my friend, who was obviously not afraid or out of her element at all. But a few days ago standing in that elementary school parking lot with the car door still half open, just me and my daughter, I was afraid.

Afraid of what? Why was I so afraid of public schools growing up? How could this fear stick with me, even as an adult? Why, I asked myself, had I ever been afraid of public schools at all?

In part I think I was afraid of the other kids, kids who seemed so strange and different. I only had homeschool friends after all, and rarely did we get together in large numbers. Given that, it’s probably only natural that being in a hallway full of public schooled kids my age would be a terrifying experience. After all, I had literally no idea how to handle myself in that sort of situation.

In part I think I was afraid that someone would talk to me, ask me what I was doing there. A teacher, maybe? The public school was, after all, foreign ground. It wasn’t my space, and it wasn’t a space I was familiar with in any way.  I felt totally comfortable roaming the halls of our church any day of the week, any hour of the day, but that’s because it was my terrain. The public school was not.

In part I think I was afraid because of what I’d been taught about public schools. That they brainwashed children into secular humanism. That they were a tool of Satan. That they were dens of hedonism and immorality. I heard stories of other conservative evangelicals going on “prayer walks” around public schools, praying the demons away. This stuff stuck with me.

My parents laughed at my fear of public schools. They didn’t understand it. They’d both grown up in public schools. Why should you be afraid of stepping into a public school, they wondered? I suppose in some sense they simply couldn’t understand. They felt comfortable around large groups of strange people, public schools still felt like familiar terrain to them, and whatever they believed about the brainwashing going on in public schools, growing up in a public school had somehow normalized it for them. They might say that public schools were brainwashing factories, but their own childhood experiences worked against this rhetoric. Mine didn’t.

I don’t think I will wholly conquer my fear of public schools until my daughter starts kindergarten. I recently saw that our local elementary school had a sign up, “last day for kindergarten registration.” My daughter’s not old enough yet, but it did make me think. In a few years, that’ll be me. I’ll be the one registering a child for kindergarten. And as I thought that I felt the fear. I’ll have to walk into that elementary school and find the right room. And as much as I hate to admit it, that thought still scares me.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://rollforpainting.wordpress.com Evs

    I think it’s understandable – I was not homeschooled for primary school, but crowds of loud children always scared me anyway and scare me now. I was always a bit shy.

    Hopefully, when the time comes for your daughter to go to kindergarten it won’t be too scary for you. You will have knowledge and control – you will probably view several different schools, look at the premises, talk to the teachers. And then armed with this knowledge select the best place for your daughter. Being in public school won’t be something that is done to you, it will be your choice to go there. At the end of the day, you probably won’t be able to send your daughter somewhere you’re not comfortable with.

    My son is 2 and goes to the nursery and given the state of primary schools here (kids start school at 4 in UK) I’m actually considering homeschooling for a couple of years. Maybe it’s “grass is always greener” sort of thing :)

    • not a parent yet

      In the US its rare to be able to choose a public school. You usually have to send your kids to the local one based on where you live.

      • Conuly

        Nowadays some degree of school choice is becoming more common, especially in larger towns and cities. And with charter schools and all….

      • shadowspring
      • Noelle

        That might be state-based. We have schools of choice in Michigan, and you can use any public or charter school. If you don’t live in the district, you may be put on a waiting list to make sure there’s room. You do have to provide transportation if you choose this. The program’s gone on for several years and is well-received.

      • http://rollforpainting.wordpress.com Evs

        Sorry, I guess it didn’t occur to me that there is no choice. Surely there might be more than one primary school in the same district? Or a possibility of private school (if money is not an issue)?

        If there’s no choice with the school it adds complexity in the situation – the available school might not be good (whichever way a parent defines good school) and even though public school might be preferable to homeschool in general, the SPECIFIC available school might not be.

        I suppose that’s close to how I feel – I would prefer my son to go to school and there are some choices…but majority of public schools in my area have 30+ 4 year olds in a class. With one teacher and maybe a TA. My sister in law works as a TA and recently they put 3 classes together (all different ages) to be taught 3 different syllabi by one teacher and one TA. Which is madness and why I’m considering homeschool…

  • Ibis3

    I’ve been trying to think of a response to this for a while. It’s shocking to me that the adults whose care you were in set about to brainwash you so thoroughly that even the idea of going into a school–a school of all places!–triggers an anxiety attack. They strive to make their children literally flee from knowledge. How crazy is that?

    Anyway, it sounds like you could use a buddy to go with you at first, just until you get used to the surroundings. One thing you could try is to go to some plays or recitals at the school to acclimatise yourself to the environment before you have to go there on behalf of your daughter. Also, you could set up an appointment to meet the kindergarten teacher the year before you register her, maybe ask to sit in on a class.

  • Rilian

    You mentioned being afraid that someone would ask what you were doing or notice that you were out of place.
    That’s how I felt when I was in my first year of college. It made me afraid to do anything, so I just sat on my bed for hours on end, and I never studied or showered or did laundry, and I failed all my classes. Even though I went to government school for 11 years and to community college for 1.5 years before that.

  • Rilian

    It kind of makes sense to me that you would be afraid of a big group of strange kids. I’ve had experiences like that, not just in college, even though I went to public school and my family was basically atheist. I can’t explain it but I can feel it, just a fear of a big group, they are a big potential threat.

  • Rilian

    “I’ll have to walk into that elementary school and find the right room.”
    This sounds like what people with asperger’s syndrome and such say. But I kind of doubt that asperger’s syndrome is real. I was diagnosed with it but i don’t know. Anyway I supposedly have it, and this sentence you said is like a description of everything I’m afraid of.

    • shadowspring

      I don’t doubt that Asperger’s is a real thing. Understanding the syndrome has helped my (not diagnosed) daughter very much, and it has helped me be a better parent to her. I have no idea if it applies in your situation, of course, but I have first-hand experience that it is a real thing in our life. It’s not a bad thing, though. Just a non-typical way of processing information.

      Libby, it sounds like mild PTSD to me. The more you visit schools in crowded session, hopefully the less it will bother you. All good meaning parents screw their kids over in some way, and in your mom’s zeal to “protect” you from being subjected to whatever negative experience she ascribed to public schools, she instilled in you an unnecessary and unrealistic fear. You are able to overcome this, and you will.

      I hate it when things like this happen. *sigh* As we mothers mature (those who do), we learn just how many fears we wrongly held to and passed on. It’s very humbling, close to humiliating, to realize this and admit it. I instilled my fear of homosexuality in my daughter, and now that I’ve let my fear go, it grieves me to see it in her. Luckily, she’s smart and willing to change her mind, but I put that in her. Oh yes, I did, and I am ever so sorry.

      I wish I could apologize on your mom’s behalf for making you afraid of public school children, but she’ll have to do that herself. :)

      • Froborr

        Seconding the “this sounds like mild PTSD.” Specifically, it sounds exactly like my (now mild, but once very much not mild) PTSD, since crowds of children and school hallways are two of my triggers.

      • MadGastronomer

        You can have panic attacks triggered by specific stimuli (that include flashbacks) without having PTSD. (I have anxiety attacks but no PTSD.) Either way, this is something for a competent professional to diagnose and help with. Seriously, Libby Anne, if your insurance will cover it, you should try going to a counselor for a few sessions, see if you can get some help for it. You might even want to consider an as-needed anti-anxiety medication. They’re a huge help to me.

  • Dianne

    I found elementary school pretty terrifying when I went to it. A combination of feeling overwhelmed by all the kids, being bullied, and being bored to tears by the slow pace of the class work. I’m still nervous enough about schools that it’s generally my partner that takes our kid to school. I send too many fear signals and don’t want to make her afraid of school by proxy.

    OTOH, the kid isn’t especially afraid of school and even seems to enjoy it at times. I think things have improved since I went to school in terms of bullying behaviors. Or maybe it’s just that we’re able to send her to a better school than I went to. Or her personality. The bottom line is, don’t assume that your kids will be afraid of school just because you were. She may have a completely different experience and association.

  • BonnieLB

    Hopefully Kindergarten will ease you into it! Our school has a “Kindergarten Round Up” in March, where you get to come into the school in the evening, get a talk from the principal & teachers, tour the building and visit the K classrooms. There are people waiting inside to direct you around the place.

    I went to a private Christian school and we were also fed the fear of public schools. When I entered public high school, I was so nervous. I gradually realized that my teachers had not been telling me the truth…which led to a lot more questioning.

  • Noelle

    Like the others said, the best treatment is desensitization. Learning to control outward signals of anxiety is worthwhile to ensure your kids don’t go into school with the same fears. I find dental visits very anxiety-provoking, but I keep as calm as I can about it with my kids and they love the dentist.

    Start with safe. You’re cool with playgrounds. Take your daughter to the school playground on a regular-enough basis you lose that anxiety of proximity. You want to take it a next step? Schools often need volunteers for book sales, tutors, teachers helpers, etc. You have a history of tutoring little kids. So you’re cool with that aspect. If you add that to the volunteering on school property, you’ll eventually acclimate to your surroundings. Use a counselor if you need to. It’s hard to logic away a phobia. Getting used to it in a safe and partially familiar setting does work.

    • MadGastronomer

      Self-directed desensitization can work and be really helpful — or it can be completely impossible and actually reinforce the anxiety trigger. Please be careful if you try this.

  • Rosa

    If it helps, even though the reason for your fear is pretty unique, the fear isn’t. There is a lot of outreach (in my city at least) to parents who need help/encouragement navigating the public school system, because the district recognizes that an awful lot of parents are intimidated – because they are immigrants from other countries, because they grew up in rural areas with very small schools/districts, because they grew up poor or working class and experienced school as something that wasn’t welcoming. You probably won’t be offered those resources proactively because you’re native-born, English-speaking, and well-educated, but if you look your district probably has a lot of guides available for everything from “what date is everything due before Kindergarten?” to “what kind of communication should I expect from my child’s teacher”. If not, you can always go to a parent’s group meeting or even just look online for a chat room of parents from your child’s school (or your friend whose partner is a teacher would probably go with you to the first few functions.)

    But, seriously, public school systems have changed an awful lot since we were kids and even the people who came up in the exact same district can feel like it’s not their territory.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    My entire education was at public schools, so this experience is puzzling to me. Although there may be people who are simply afraid of large numbers of strangers no matter the context, I think for the most part this kind of stifling fear is programmed into a person. It’s normal to feel somewhat anxious and perhaps a little lost when alone in a large structure, but not to the point of being completely overtaken to the point you can’t even concentrate. Certainly by the age of 12 or 13 I was able to wander around strange schools without any particular worries (except perhaps missing the meeting time because I had gotten lost).

    The fear of being questioned or noticed is especially interesting. During sessions, most public schools are so busy that the teachers and administration really have neither time nor interest enough to go interrogating random people who happen to be there. You’d have to be doing something quite questionable or otherwise obviously externalizing yourself to actually get stopped, typically. Perhaps I have always been the type who found it easy to blend into the environment?

  • Anat

    There are many ways to familiarize yourself with schools in your area. Make an appointment to visit. Take a tour. Observe the playground. Come to an ‘open house’ event. Start well before registration time. And obviously, if school choice is an option for you tour several schools. Get yourself comfortable gradually, start on a day the school isn’t in session, then during school hours but a long time before recess, so you aren’t likely to run across many kids rushing about. And remember – you are all grown up, you have a right to be in public places. Though for safety reasons schools will ask you to go through the office first and make your presence known. (Their biggest worry is non-custodial parents coming to kidnap their kids, or worse.)

  • Kevin Alexander

    Sounds like a garden variety phobia. As a small child you imagined demons there so you became afraid of it. As others have pointed out desensitization therapy cures phobias. Find any excuse you can to go to the school and hang out there. The fear will fade even if it never goes away.

  • AnotherOne

    My kids are in public school and I still have that fear sometimes, though it has lessened a lot over the last few years. The biggest issue is that I’ve had to learn to appropriately calibrate my responses to normal hiccups/problems along the way.

    When my daughter was in kindergarten, some of the kids started mildly bullying her out of her lunch, and the waves of guilt and fear on my part were way out of proportion to her distress. I realized my freaking out was not so much about what was going on, but about all the indoctrination/fear-mongering I experienced growing up. I feared that sending her to public school was throwing her to the wolves after all. That, and I also had an emotional need for public school to work out hunky dory for my kids so that I could prove to my family and conservative friends that we weren’t ruining our kids’ lives by putting them in public school.

    With the lunch debacle and other problems that have cropped up, I’ve had to take a step back from my freak-out and just deal sensibly with the issue at hand. Thus far, two-pronged efforts to 1) encourage my daughter toward resilience and becoming an advocate for herself and 2) working with the teacher and other parents to resolve difficulties has worked quite well.

    At first I found myself hiding any problems that came up for my daughters from the people I knew were judgmental of our choice to put them in public school. But I’ve become a little more resilient too, and now, when my family or friends go off on how kids are bullied, or the education is sub-par, or whatever, I find I’m able to nuance the conversation in ways they have difficult arguing against, because they don’t have experience with their kids being in public school. So, when a relative observes that my daughter no longer gets pushed as much around by her more exuberant cousin, I get to say “Yes, she’s really come a long way. She had some difficulties with kids at school pushing her around, and so we’ve worked together with her and the teacher to give her strategies to stick up for herself, and it’s really worked.” I don’t know that I’ve convinced anyone outright, but I’m also fine with that–it’s only my job to do right by my kids, not convince people that I’m right and they’re wrong (even though I sometimes want to).

  • Froborr

    My fiancee and I have had discussions over this, since I got a quality education and some fairly serious trauma courtesy of the public school system, and she got a piss-poor education and some fairly serious trauma courtesy of the public school system. She very much does not want our eventual daughter to go to public school, I would prefer our putative daughter to go to public school. She thinks her education and her trauma are the norm for public school, I think my education is closer to the norm and our traumas are not. Fortunately it is not something we will have to settle for at least a decade.

    • MadGastronomer

      Bother of these things depend massively on the particular school and the particular child. Some public schools give very good educations, at least to children whose learning styles overlap with the school’s teaching style. Some public schools give terrible educations to just about anyone, and some kids are autodidacts who manage to get a good education while attending that school anyway. Some children will be bullied and traumatized no matter how good about these things the school is, and some will be fine no matter how bad it is. Don’t make it about what’s “the norm” for public school, make it about the schools available to you, and even more importantly, about your child.

      • Froborr

        That is actually some excellent advice, thank you MG. I will keep that in mind next time this comes up with my fiancee.

    • Noelle

      Private school isn’t necessarily better. I had 3 years of Lutheran schooling from 7-9th grade, and those were really the only years I can say I was bullied or tormented by my peers. When I moved to a public school in a different city in the 10th grade, most everyone was real nice to me and I had good experiences both socially and education-wise there. If anything, the faculty at that school were more observant of student behavior and more concerned about fixing problems. And this was in the early 90s, before the anti-bullying movement.

  • http://www.firsttheegg.com Molly

    It’s funny–I have none of your reasons, but I felt the same fear and discomfort about physically entering and navigating the (Catholic) school I attended from kindergarten through the eighth grade, the whole time I was there and also after graduating. I feel much the same, as an adult, about every elementary/high school I’ve ever entered (including to vote, etc.), hospitals, and college/university cafeterias. I *really* hate most institutional spaces (it’s not the crowds: parks, concerts, etc. are perfectly fine by me). At least I feel totally a-okay in libraries of every possible variety!

  • Kat

    I think your response is totally normal/understandable. My parents are public school teachers and I remember roaming the local elementary school halls long before I was old enough to go to school. Save for preschool, I attended PS my whole life and spent countless extra hours in the schools (both my own and those where my parent’s work) attending events/functions, etc. From college up until a few years ago when I moved out of state, I taught classes in various elementary after school programs…All that said, when I flew home to visit my parent’s last summer, my dad asked me to meet him at school (my old high school) one day because he thought it would be nice for me to say “hi” to some of my old teachers. I arrived near the last period of the day, and was surprised to find myself TERRIFIED. I kept second-guessing my hair style, my clothing choices, feeling uneasy about my weight (I’m by no means overweight, but I was a very late bloomer and SUPER tiny in high school, so to find myself a good 40 lbs heavier than I was when I last roamed those hals made me very self-conscious,) all of a sudden I was back in “high school mode,” and, even though I had a pretty positive high school experience, I kept silently l thinking “please don’t notice me,” “please don’t laugh at me,” “please don’t pick on me,” “OMG, I’m walking down the hall with A TEACHER [my dad]. It was like one step through those high school doors made me feel about 3 inches tall…it’s interesting, because as an adult (I’m 26) I’m normally super confident, but the minute a group of high-schoolers sit down on the bus I’m on, or walk into the coffee shop where I’m working I start to freak out (and again, I had a pretty great HS experience). You are not alone in this, Libby :)

  • http://www.arizona-writer.com Kimberly Hosey | Arizona Writer

    My husband was raised in a similar (but slightly less extreme) household, and home schooled for the same kinds of reasons. (His mother believed public schools were “whore pits,” violent ganglands, and yes, brainwashing factories. At about 14, they said if he “really wanted to,” he could try public school, but he was too scared by then.) I read him most of this post, and he kept saying over and over again “That’s EXACTLY how it is!” I’ve never been able to relate, growing up in a family of public school teachers for decades, but he is incredibly intimidated in public schools. When we went to our son’s “meet the teacher” night, he kept trying to find ways to appear casual in the room, like someone was going to kick him out at any moment. (It actually backfired and his “causal lean” caused him to knock a bunch of stuff off the teacher’s desk. I thought he would melt from mortification.) The first band concert was a battle between parental pride and wanting to escape the cafeteria/auditorium full of teachers and students. (Pride won.)

    Nothing useful to offer, except, yeah, I recognize that. PTSD of a sort, even if the bad school memories were only taught, rather than experienced. Thanks for this for my husband, for sure!

  • Elizabeth

    Doesn’t sound all that different from how I react to public schools, and I went to them for 12 years. For me, public schools were, for the most part, not nice places. I was usually bored and hated the arbitrary rules about when to use the bathroom, when to eat, what to wear, how to wear your ID card, etc. You could be disciplined for “insubordination” if you tried to argue against a rule you didn’t like. I remember once getting a 20% on a paper that the teacher acknowledged would have otherwise gotten an A because I wrote it in pen instead of pencil! Oh, and the social environment was frequently pretty toxic, too.

    I know your reaction comes from a completely different place, but just wanted to throw that out there.

  • Paula

    That is an amazing story. It confirms everything I believe about the inadequacy of home schooling as practiced by today’s right wing religious home schooling community. The subset of skills learned in public schools includes becoming comfortable with all the things that scared you. School is preparation for life, and many people WORK in large buildings full of people they don’t know at first, people who might speak to them or ask them a question, people who are different from themselves.

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