Panic in the classroom

I respect every student who struggles with anxiety and/or agoraphobia and still attends classes to work toward an education. When going to school is a frightening experience, the temptation to drop out and stay at home must be strong. To all those reading who match that description, my hat is off to you.

For me, the classroom and the library have always been safe places and happy places. Even though I was bullied from the fifth grade through the ninth grade, I didn’t blame the school for that; being bullied during slow times probably only made me more focused on my studies. I loved going to college and to graduate school, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to return later to the classroom, this time as a teacher.

Not only am I introverted; I am also shy. It may seem strange that I enjoy teaching. When I teach, though, I know why I am there. I have a clearly designed role and task. I believe that three qualities make a teacher good: deep knowledge and understanding of the subject area, deep interest in the subject area with a desire to share knowledge and understanding, and genuine interest in the students. Those qualities make me happy to stand in front of a group of people and talk, even though I might not have the courage to approach any one of them or speak with them in a store or other public area.

One evening last week was different. I left work in the middle of the afternoon to prepare to teach, as is my habit, and as I approached my house I saw that the neighbor two doors down was having a tree removed. That made me sad and also a little angry, as I see no reason to destroy a healthy living tree. Of course I had to listen to the saws while I read through the chapter and ate my early supper. Still, I drove to the school and spoke with the office staff without feeling any different than usual.

The first sign something was not quite right was when I started writing notes on the classroom
whiteboard. I wrote “INDIA” in big letters at the top of the board, and it looked as if I was aiming for italics rather than bold letters. Then, when I tried to write “Harappan” underneath, it took three tries to achieve a legible “H.” A couple deep breaths and I was able to finish putting words on the board, but having my hands shake that badly before class even started was not a good sign.

As the students arrived one by one, I was able to enter the small talk before class—not my strongest suit, but something I generally can fake. Then I began the lecture and discussion. Fifteen minutes later I had completed half an hour of material without leaving out anything important. The thirty minutes on China were polished off in another fifteen minutes. I stammered more than usual and had to repeat some words—I can’t say whether that was due to talking faster or another symptom of the same panic. We moved on to the quiz, and the students who usually do well did about as well as usual, while the students who generally don’t do as well did even more poorly than usual.

I cannot guess why I felt so panicked in the classroom that evening. Was it lingering anger over the neighbor and his tree? Was staying up past midnight the night before to visit with family a mistake? Is the counseling that is working on identifying feelings and working backward to their causes making me worse instead of better? I have too many questions and not enough answers.

Lately I have been learning about mindfulness. (I will write more about mindfulness in another post.) I tried to be mindful in the classroom—I was able to talk to the class and cover all the material even if I did so in double speed. What happens this week is yet to be seen. Think good thoughts for me.

J.

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