Thursday, August 22, 2013

My lifelong fear of being in trouble

So I just finished reading The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac, and chapter 24 got me thinking about something that happened to me in 5th grade. The chapter is only two paragraphs, so I'm just going to quote them here:

You'll never make a boy in the middle of a gripping story understand--you'll never get him to understand through a demonstration intended for him alone--why he must stop reading and go to bed.

It was Kafka who said that, little Franz, whose father wanted him to spend every night counting.

As a child, I never understood why I had to stop reading, but one incident is forever branded in my mind. I was in 5th grade, and every morning, students gave a little presentation on any books they had finished reading. One morning, a boy named Matt Bagley, who was gawky and tall (for a 5th grader), and had what seemed like huge hands to me, was discussing the book Bridge to Terebithia by Katherine Patterson, which was one of my favorite books, by one of my favorite authors. He was tapping the book during his presentation, which is probably why I noticed his hands. AND HE WAS GETTING IT WRONG! It was clear to me that he had not read the book, or if he had, that he had so obviously not understood what was going on, or what made it such a GOOD book. It was incredible how inaccurate his description of it was.

I don't remember exactly what he said, but I remember thinking, I've already read that book, and besides, he's getting it wrong, so I'll just go back to reading what I was reading before he started his report.

But despite the fact that Matt was so clearly in the wrong, I got in trouble FOR READING. And I wasn't even expecting it.

On the first day of school, Ms. Rottenberg (yes, that really was her name), told us the classroom rules, and what the penalties were. The first penalty was your name on the board. I don't remember what the second one was, but the third one was being sent to the principal and so on. Somehow, I missed the part where you'd start anew the next day, and so I thought as soon as you got your name on the board once, you were totally screwed (it didn't occur to me how irrational this was, if for no other reason than it can be really difficult for elementary-aged kids to always behave).

Anyway, reading during Matt's atrocious presentation got me my name on the board. I was told I wasn't paying attention. I was so dumbfounded that I didn't even bother to point out that it didn't make sense for me to pay attention to someone who clearly was talking about a book they hadn't read. And besides, I'm not sure my 5th-grade mind could articulate such a sentiment.

At any rate, my name was on the board, and I was convinced that if I stuck a toe out of line the rest of the year, whatever the second thing was would happen, and the world would come to an end. My parents would disown me, I'd be kicked out of school and become a drug addict and get pregnant and never go to college (okay, and while we're on the subject, why is this always the series of events presented to kids? I mean, every time we discussed drugs and/or sex in school, it seemed like we were all doomed if we ever did either of those things. It was like God was hovering over our health classes ready to send in a wrath of locusts or something). I apparently never noticed if my name was removed the next day or not. It was etched on the chalkboard in my mind's eye, and that was all that mattered to me.

So, little 5th-grade Virginia was terrified of getting in trouble, and the worst part was, I really didn't understand what I had done wrong. I mean, I was READING in SCHOOL! So, more accurately, my fear was, I'd get in trouble for something I couldn't predict would get me in trouble. It would have been one thing if I had known what I was doing was wrong, and was doing it anyway, like the kids who got in trouble for writing on their desks (why would they ever think such a thing was appropriate?). But the fact that I didn't even expect to get in trouble was unnerving.

This is actually a fear that has followed me to this day. I'm a grown-up with legitimate, employable skill sets, and every time my boss calls me into his office, I'm afraid that I'm going to be in trouble. Not that I'm going to be fired, but that that unnamed second thing is going to happen. That somehow, I've done something wrong that I didn't even realize was the wrong thing to do. Chapter 24 was an epiphany for me, and realizing my habit has been instrumental in helping me change it. It makes no sense for me to be so nervous at work. I'm not a brain surgeon--no one is going to die if I make a mistake, and furthermore, it's my boss's job to help me if I do make a mistake.

I'm saddened by the amount of time and energy I've wasted being scared of getting in trouble when I don't expect to, but I'm glad I've finally named that fear. It's a fear of the unknown, a fear of not knowing the rules of the game, a fear I'm still not able to articulate to the depths that it has shaped my life. It was an unexpected find in a book about reading.

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