Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.
– Bessel van der Kolk
My teacher doesn’t like me. She says things like, “I could sit here next to a bag of potatoes, and I bet she’d get it to talk back to her.” I just feel relaxed when I’m here. My friends like me. They laugh with me. They care what I say. I love that.
My grades are decent. I didn’t get straight A’s like my brother, but I rarely got anything lower than a B. School came easy to me. If I studied more, I imagine I’d get straight As. But that doesn’t interest me.
Mrs. Granger isn’t a great teacher, so I help my classmates when they don’t understand. Math is my best subject, and I love sharing how easy it can be with others. As long as you can understand the rules, you can repeat them over and over and over again. Stability. I like to think of the phrase, “Safety in numbers.” There is absolute safety in something you can depend on.
Mrs. Granger doesn’t like it when I ask questions. She called my mother one day and said, “She asks me questions that make me look stupid.” I didn’t understand that. My mom told me to stop trying to get under her skin. She told me to stop talking and asking questions. But if she says the wrong thing, we all get confused. I guess I should learn to keep my mouth shut. I’ve been hearing that line for my entire life as if my life’s goal is to sit still and remain silent.
I wonder if Mrs. Granger knows how long I got the silent treatment from my parents after that phone call. Not only can I not talk to anyone at home, but now I’m instructed to do the same in school. The silence is maddening. There is no safety in silence.
It’s about a month before report cards come out. Mrs. Granger starts her monologue, “Children, I’m handing out warning notices today. I don’t intend to hurt you but to help you. Perhaps your parents will know about your shortcomings and be able to spend more time with you on your homework. They may even be able to get assistance from a tutor. All in all, I hope they see these warnings and understand what goes on in this classroom.”
She has a smirk on her face as she hands half the class a yellow paper. She instructs us to bring them back signed by a parent on Monday. Up and down each aisle, I can feel her glaring at me. I think back to all my test scores and am confident I will not be on the receiving end of a mellow yellow slip of paper oozing with certain punishment. But sure enough, she places one on my desk.
I decide to walk home today. I need the fifteen minutes to open this paper, to read it, to digest it, and to come up with a plan to share my terrible news. I need to get a signature. I wonder if I should wait until later tonight after my Dad has had one too many beers. Maybe he’ll sign it, and it’ll be forgotten by morning. It also might enrage him. Or he may insist that I show my mother.
I briskly walk past my friends. I need to take this walk alone.
I’m far enough away now. I take the paper out of my jacket pocket and unfold each crease slowly. As much as I want to know what’s inside, I also don’t. Did I forget to hand in a project? Did I miss a test last week when I was out sick? Nope.
A Behavioral Warning
I’m sick to my stomach. How do I explain this one? Wasn’t the call home to my mother enough? She told me to sit down and be quiet. And I’ve been following those exact directions. I’ve been so lonely, but I’ve been quiet. I feel pressure building up in my throat. Tears begin to stream down my face. I sense more silence and despair ahead. Is there anywhere I can let loose and be myself? Is there anywhere I can be safe?
Maybe I’ll sit in my room all weekend and master my entire math book. At least I can feel safe knowing that I can learn more.
The patterns will repeat. There will be sanity. It will make sense.