The school days…
What are you fears?
The white collar pierced my neck, pushed back by the tie representing the colours of my house and school.
I compressed a finger against the shirts top button, a futile attempt to engulf some air. The school I attended was a stickler for formality and professionalism, so I wasn’t allowed to release the top button or risk the usual lecture from a school authority figure.
“In the real world, you can’t expect to keep a job if you go into the office looking scruffy”
I imagined the words bellowing from the headmaster, he was an old school disciplinary type, walking around with a black cape, he would always be walking around with a look of disappointment on his face, probably because the cane wasn’t allowed anymore. But wherever he went, boys and girls would separate pressing themselves against the side, so he could walk through the middle.
Five deep staggered breaths, came from my lungs, attempting to cling for air as my blue blazer snugged close to my body. It grew tighter everyday as the hormones of puberty fueled my growth.
Assembly, like all days was a full house – child crammed shoulder to shoulder, boys almost having to sit on each other. With it, a restricted sweaty heat filled the air, bringing out the disgusting smell of floor cleaner.
The curtains were shut, giving the room a dark, gloomy feel and serving to hide away any temptations from easily distracted minds to the outside world. The main source of light came from the spacious stage, where the headmaster droned on.
Not that I took a single word in, the discomfort was too much as beads of sweat poured down my face, I tried gulping for breath, but the air around me continued to close in, choking my throat.
For these reasons’ assembly to start the day had been something I’d come to dread, where my main goal became to survive each session without the atmosphere of the room closing me down.
My hands gripped together to try and comfort my anxiety, but they’d become so moist and slippery it was difficult to keep them together.
Each second, I counted down, making a mental check as we worked through each part of the daily ritual.
Headmaster starts off with his opening words, stand-up, sing first hymn, sit down…
Headmaster gives an update some kids from the school have been harassing a neighbour in the locality and wants someone to do the right thing and fess up, the room sits in an awkward silence….
Now some readings from Year 7, stand-up, second hymn, daily prayer, sit down, almost there…
Time to leave, single file, “no pushing”, make sure to follow the new school one way system and get to class ready to start at 9:03…
I made it.
Most days I was never that lucky, closeness succumbing me, departing in the hall, trying not to draw attention to myself, while clambering over the bodies of boys and girls.
“Go to the sickroom Lane, until one of your parents can pick you up.“
Those times felt like decades, sitting in that ghostly, dank sickroom.
My mum would arrive, it was always her, as she wasn’t the bread winner and “just” had a part time job to help make ends meet in the home.
I could sense the feeling of frustration and disappointment as she filled in some paperwork at school reception to declare she was taking me from school. I don’t know how she put up with me, but God, I must have been such a nightmare to keep putting her through this shit.
My mum, always supportive, willing to do anything, be protective, too protective at times, but I could tell by the tone in her voice and the cold, frosty drive home, she couldn’t keep going with this.
The school sick day ritual was something I’d become familiar with, I’d stripped down into loose fitting clothes to escape the shackles of a stuffy old uniform, then I’d get to lie in bed all day playing on my Sega Mega Drive. Usually, I’d feel much better within the hour, so was back in school for everything to be repeated the next day.
I’d missed over half of the school year so far, and I learnt the hard way if there is anything worse for a young teenager, it was showing any kind of difference to the group, and when that difference was some sort of weakness, like going all weird and constantly wimping out of assembly, that makes the situation ten times worse. I might as well have had a sign on the back of my blue blazer saying “pick on me”.
Getting through assembly was bad enough, now I was facing a showdown with classmates, like vultures circling in on easy pickings with the weaker kid.
My confidence was shattered, this couldn’t go on…
At some point or other my mum and I was invited to an emergency meeting with my form tutor Mrs Sutton.
“I’m really in trouble now”
Mrs Sutton looked like everyone’s favourite grandma, she had whisps of short grey hair flicked up, a round, cuddly looking cardigan-clad body with a face possessing jowls like a female Winston Churchill.
We came into an empty classroom and took a seat around a desk towards the back of the room, as my mum readjusted her uncomfortable chair, made of school grey metal, and cushioned with the school blue colour.
I expected the conversation to be a stern warning to get my shit together, or be gone. But that’s not what happened.
Mrs Sutton laid down the facts which I couldn’t deny. My attendance had been poor and wanted me to explain what was going on.
Although I couldn’t quite understand what was going on myself, I explained the symptoms that were overcoming me every morning, triggered by the school assembly.
To her credit, Mrs Sutton gave me the best example of active listening I’d ever seen in my life, she took in what I was saying, and only spoke up when the time was right, never once passing judgement as I explained the anxiety that overcame me every morning.
By the end of the emergency meeting an action plan was agreed, I was to sit at the side on a chair will all the teachers to see how this would help with my issues.
Of course, this drew even more attention to me from the other kids, envious of the hard wooden seat I got to stretch my growing legs while they continued to sit on the floor knees on top of each other.
“Laney’s playing up, there’s nothing wrong with him, he’s just milking it to get special treatment”
Yeah, they could bitch and moan all they wanted about the unfairness of it all, besides Mrs Sutton had come up with a plan for dealing with the verbal bullying – I was to write a “comeback sheet” on every insult and taunt that came my way.
As lame as it sounds, writing some witty response to my critics that I couldn’t come up with on the spot to my critics was actually quite therapeutic.
The plan, to my surprise worked, having the space away from sweaty adolescent limbs, stopped that hot closeness from consuming me. My view from the side looked over a sea of heads, and being above the crowd allowed me to relax.
One, two, three assemblies passed and to my surprise, I was no longer counting down the seconds until it finished.
For the first time since the start of the school year I’d managed a full school week without taking a single day off sick.
At the catch up meeting, my mum returned to school, in better mind this time, relieved that a potential solution to the problem had been found.
Mrs Sutton, sat still, continuing to listen as I expressed the relief that the feelings of awkwardness had stopped. Because of its success it was decided it was appropriate for things to continue.
As I got up to leave the classroom, Mrs Sutton said she’d been doing more reading on the symptoms I was experiencing.
“It’s sounds to me like you have what they call claustrophobia, basically it means you have a fear of crowded spaces…”
This is a story how I managed to control an ongoing problem. Have you had experiences of confronting a fear?
Wishing you the best in your success.
James @Perfect Manifesto