Safety First

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.

Warning Notice

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.


JoAnna Bennett
JoAnna Bennett
Mother, Marketer, Writer, and Reader. I’m a mother of two wonderful little humans. I’m also an avid reader, an insatiable learner, and a self-acknowledged survivor. I’m grateful to work at O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) because I’ve learned the self-soothing and restorative craft of writing. I used to resist calling myself a writer because I have a finance degree. I naively thought I needed an English degree to effectively express myself in writing. But now, writer is a title I proudly wear, and writing is something I’ll practice for the rest of my life.

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    • Thank you Lynn. I’ve been working on sharing my gratitude and want you to know I’m grateful for your comment. You are absolutely correct. It isn’t me. And I am fine. 🙂 What a beautifully simple reminder.

  1. Oh Joanna, my heart is heavy reading this. What a responsibility teachers have! I want to reach through this keyboard and hug your younger self. Tell her how amazing she is! Celebrate her! I’m so sorry you didn’t get your gifts reflected back. Know that, through your writing, we see your beauty. You remind us of how powerful we are and what a responsibility we have to one another.

    • Thank you Kimberly! Reading your comment early on a Monday morning was so powerful. During my yoga practice yesterday, we focused on choosing joy. I could be bitter and cold. But I’m going to chose to be joyful instead.

      I’ve been doing some inner child work and hugging that little girl myself. But the great news is she survived! She made plenty of mistakes, but she’s here. She’s got two tiny humans that call her Mom. And she’s gunna make sure their lives are unlike her own.

  2. Joanna this is a powerful story that I am sure happened not only to me but to many of us. I tool the living well is my best revenge approach. Later in life i met as an adult many of the people that said I would never amount to anything. Treating people with kindness and support takes very little effort and should be how we should engage others and live our life. .

    • I believe that there will always be toxic people in and around us. I’ve learned that instead of engaging them, its best to walk away with my dignity intact. But children don’t have that choice. What children need is a buffer adult. An adult that they feel safe with. An adult that they can act themselves in front of. We can’t prevent toxic people from being in and around us, but we can save ourselves and our kids – by being that buffer!

  3. The version of the “yellow slip of paper” that I experienced was a note on the bottom of the report card that read something like “Jeff has the potential to do better.” I know my teachers meant it as a positive, i.e. “There’s potential here,” but for me, it was just another shortcoming. I was a dreamer as a student – actually I still am. Something that I read or hear can send me anywhere but where I am physically. It’s always been that way. Today, teachers are increasingly exposed to the concepts of “Social and Emotional Learning,” or “Address the whole child,” and that’s good. Education can’t just be about the stuff of learning; it has to be about the learner. I’m curious: if you could hand Mrs. Granger a yellow slip of paper, what would it say?

    • Jeff Ikler – a dreamer? I never would have guessed. 😉 If I could hand her a yellow slip, I would have it say:

      Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. – Carl Jung

  4. Deep exhale. It resonates because I was what some teachers considered either “high energy” or a bit “too social” or “someone who can’t contain his curiosity.” I went to a Catholic grade school, and one of the priests would come in to teach religion and immediately sent me out into the hallway to kneel outside the door for the duration of the class. I quickly learned that telling my parents about the unfairness of the situation was pointless – why bring down more punishment for an offense that wasn’t worth being punished once for? And we make peace with ourselves by reinforcing that message that we are “a bit off,” or “weird” or “high maintenance” or as one teacher I overheard telling his colleagues “he’s such a little smartass…” – we learn to stifle those questions.

    If there is solace for some to be found in a math book, others might find it in history books and biographies. We do need order and respect to maintain some semblance of a teachable atmosphere, but the cost to get there is where the puddle gets murky. The only bullying allowed in many of the classrooms of my youth came under the auspices of the teacher. The pendulum swung the other way, and I believe neutering the teacher of any disciplinary say in their own classrooms may have brought on more serious problems than it solved.

    I survived, not quite sure how long it took to unravel some of the psychic vandalism that was committed in the name of good order “for the sake of the other kids,” but worse things have happened to me, most of my own doing. It does beg the question as to why every course correction has to be an overcorrection that brings the boat ashore, not just ashore, but busted up on the rock. What I can’t speak to is the hell that awaited your protagonist at home… my parents were tough on us, but not unreasonably so nor with any cruelty or meanness.

    With all my introspective rambling, I am no closer to having solved the dilemma trapping kids into such difficult conundrums. Thank you for presenting this for further discussion.

    • Thank you Tom. I started in Catholic school (which was rough) and thankfully moved to a public school in 2nd grade. If we’re still on earth, we survived it – but like you said you have to be conscious about the unraveling. Some folks survive, but without the ability to process it all. Giving people/kids a place to feel safe is how solving the dilemma starts. Some people joke about “safe places” but it’s true. When your brain and body is in a consistent state of fear and stress, it acts differently than it’s supposed to. There needs to be a place where you can breath, eat, sleep and feel loved. You need to have others respect you before you can learn how to respect yourself.

  5. JoAnna, thank you for writing an article that is as important as yours is. We need to feel safe with people. Sometimes it’s hard to know who to trust and who not. A teacher should never act as Mrs. Granger did. She had no right to do to you what she did.

    • Thank you Joel. While I do agree that her behaviors were incorrect, I imagine she was going through her own struggles. Perhaps I reminded her of someone … maybe even a part of herself. While she had no right to act that way, I imagine she had no idea what I faced at home. I put on a pretty good front.

  6. This makes the mama bear in me want to walk into that classroom with claws out! I’m so sorry that this is your story. I feel your sense of impossible situations in this essay. I hope you have grown out of your past and turned your situations into 180 degree differences for your own children. I think I recognize your website link from another recent author.

    • Hi Jane! I’m in the process of turning it around. It took a while for me to understand why I was the way I was. But after therapy, self-reflection, self-love, and the power of my community, I was able to realize things weren’t normal. That it’s okay. And I can change.

      Here’s to one step at a time. 😉

    • I applaud you for doing the work. It’s tough to turn yourself inside out and put new pieces in place. Keep it up?

  7. This story completely maps on to much of my life, Joanna. Wow. You’ve captured that experience of an adult projecting their own insecurities and failings/shortcomings onto children-making the “problem” one that remains with the children-not a both-and situation of the teachers’ places of growth/learning and all the children’s place of growth. You did nothing wrong in helping your classmates. She felt threatened by your bright light and gifts that maybe she herself did not possess. I know this one so well from many life experiences and interactions.

    Learning to find our voices once again, to not ever doubt our gifts, our goodness, our skills, capacities, choices, and responses remains a place of great strength, resilience, and courage.

    Thank you so much for sharing this story and all the layers that I can see in my own life journey. Powerful and profound.

    • Thank you Laura. I wish I could go back to the ghost of JoAnna past and let her know she’d be okay. She needed these experiences to be compassionate, caring and thirsty for knowledge. My first job was in a day care center. At one point I was 16 years old – working under the table for five bucks a hour – and responsible for 20 two-year-olds. When the second teacher would show up, a college educated woman about 30 years my senior, she’d take half the kids. And she’d always leave me with the “problem children”. At first it was stressful, but then I realized how to connect with these kids and they always listened. They just needed love, empathy and understanding. Things I could afford to give them. The director always wondered how I handled that class so effectively. I imagine I saw myself in each and every one of them. And I just followed the golden rule – and treated them how I would’ve liked.