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.