Irrational Fears


Remember these?  We used to be terrified of these as children.

All kinds of monsters, demons, and other terrifying creatures lived there, or so we were convinced.  I wasn’t like some of my friends, though, my family didn’t watch horror movies–but I had plenty of Dickens’ references (didn’t know what a real guttersnipe was until years later) and Holocaust documentaries (the drain led straight to Hell that looked just like one of Hitler’s fiery furnace) under my belt to be so frightened on our family walks that a bony arm with jagged, bloody fingernails would creep out of this crevice and drag me to some horrific torture chamber.

I won’t tell you how old I was when I stopped believing in these storm drain beasties; but I always knew this fear was irrational.  This knowledge made the fear that much more frustrating (and sometimes, paralyzing).

As I was walking this morning, I saw this particular storm drain and remembered my childhood fears.  It got me thinking about my students–4 seniors in particular–who are suffering from the irrational fear of success.

Each senior spent last year recovering a ton of credits in order to be legit seniors this year… only to give up completely on school within the first quarter this year.  One by one as they turned 18, they started skipping and failing multiple classes.  One dropped out right before Christmas; despite multiple requests to re-enroll, he’s never followed through.  One has been toying with the idea of dropping out all year and has convinced himself that he doesn’t care so he acts out in increasing intensity.  One is in complete denial about his multiple F’s and is convinced that he will graduate in a few weeks with his peers.  The last one is also in denial, but he believes that though he is currently failing everything an illusive “something” will intercede for him and things will just work out.

All four are terrified of what the future holds for them.  Irrationally terrified.  So far, school has been the only real constant in their lives — a crappy, unenjoyable constant, but a constant nonetheless. I think they’re subconsciously trying to prolong high school; they know they’re not really ready for the “real” world, for adulthood… and even though it’s already a reality for two of them, they’re not ready for parenthood without the school supports, either.

I think my seniors know that their fear of success and graduation is irrational, but that just makes it that much more paralyzing.  They don’t know how to ask for help because they don’t think they deserve help.  No one’s really helped them before: not parents, not teachers, not neighbors, not church, not government, not anybody.

One tragic flaw of public education is that some students do not experience success until high school. Often these four years cannot outweigh the previous eight years of poverty and rejection experienced at home and at school.  This creates a sometimes insurmountable achievement gap and leads some students who “should have” graduated down a different path. This path is more painful, but they feel like they deserve it–sometimes only for a short time (hopefully for only a short time!), but more often than not, it is permanent and feeds into their families and communities causing a culture that rejects education as a way to improve life.

My burning question is… but what causes some of their peers–with almost identical disadvantages–to face their irrational fears with perseverance and ultimately overcome them?  It’s easy to be confrontational and make the Shinedown lyric, “Sound of Madness” a mantra–seriously, who hasn’t been an outcast, paranoid, suffered through sadness, madness etc.? It’s easy to point fingers and make comparisons, but these behaviors are a result of self-fulfilling prophecies due to mental illness (even if it is “just” depression).  It’s easy to tell them to take their medicine… but just like everything else, they can’t be helped until they want help and ask for it!  It’s not easy to patiently wait for them to wake up and truly fight for themselves in a productive way, but the knowledge that there is someone there for them after the nightmare is over might be the deciding factor for them.

I didn’t mean for this to turn into a piece about mental illness, but Mental Health Awareness Month is right around the corner. It is no mistake that it falls in the same month as graduation and that mental illness is probably one of the leading causes of dropouts.



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