by Bailey Powell Aldrich
I remember the decision for me to tag along with my mother to the parent teacher night feeling arbitrary, and I suppose there was no reason for my mother to expect it to be more than a brief stop at J.B. Little Elementary School. Second grade was going well. Mrs. Cremer had placed me in a small, gifted group inside of her bigger class of students on the regular learning course. She gave us extra work, more complex instructions, and one time asked students to gather around my desk to watch me color an elephant with a grey crayon.
“Do you see how Bailey stays within the lines? Do you see how Bailey’s coloring all goes in one smooth direction?” She advised the students.
Parents trickled out of the classroom until only my mother and my friend Kiira’s mother remained. Mrs. Cremer had requested a private audience with them and it upset me. I cried outside of the classroom when another classmate’s sweet mother, desperate to distract me, asked me to race her down the hallway. Who could walk backwards faster? “Shh! Bailey, will you race me?”
I kicked her ass.
Soon after this night I was invited into the office of Mrs. Dean, the elementary school counselor. She presented me with the biggest, most serious looking test I’d ever taken. Mid-test I clutched the hefty stack of papers as I tip-toed up to her in my clean white sneakers. “What does this mean?” I asked, pointing to the “x” in a multiplication problem. She simply advised me to do my best and told me it was okay to skip anything I didn’t understand.
Later, presumably after discussing with my dad and receiving the mystery test results, my mom and I stood leaning against her bed. She asked me how I would feel about skipping the second grade to move into third. She explained how it was my choice, but I don’t remember ever considering staying in second grade. “Apparently this is incredibly rare,” my mother gloated, clearly impressed with the intelligence of the creature she created.
On my first day of third grade I wore a denim mini skirt, those same clean white sneakers, and a baby pink, short sleeve turtleneck top with a silver zipper that ran from the middle of my chest to the chin. As soon as I walked up, the door of Mrs. Stanley’s classroom swung open. While the aero door closer gushed out air a red-headed boy made eye contact with me, pointed, and said “Hey! Are you the new girl?” The door slammed in front of me. I must have looked like I was going to hurl because my mother soothed me with affirmations and encouragement before ushering me into the classroom.
As I settled into the routine of third grade, my mind was often occupied by a complex evaluation of the bathroom situation. Not including group bathroom breaks, I had one time to ask to go to the bathroom per day without receiving negative attention from classmates or Mrs. Stanley. Knowing I had that option felt safe, but I knew as soon as I caved and used that escape I would be out for the rest of the day. What if I had to pee again?! Inside of the classroom I was gripped by the feeling of inability to leave at will. It was not due to a lack of discipline or disinterest in learning. In third grade an acute anxiety had set in, except I didn’t yet have a name for what I felt. I began seeing my beloved child psychologist Dr. Anderson.
In 4th grade, I tried out for cheerleader, made the squad, and found my friend niche. Anytime someone felt sick to their stomach or threw up, though, I got as far away as possible. Fourth grade was defined by terror of contracting an illness. In fifth grade, my mind was consumed with appearing to have normal bathroom habits, an overwhelming fear of puke, all exacerbated by the new concern of what boys will think about me. I was so scared of school that every morning my parents battled me to go. I spent several days in Mrs. Dean’s office as she evaluated my behavior, but unfortunately the level of my anxiety was inversely correlated to the calming effect of Mrs. Dean. Mrs. Dean was like the field of poppies in the Wizard of Oz, minus the falling asleep part. This created a puzzling situation for my parents, resulting in their decision that my behavior was simply defiant and nothing else. In hindsight, I was hard up for some anti-anxiety meds. Fifth grade was a daily nightmare, but I loved my homeroom teacher Mrs. Johnson so much I cried when I left her on the last day of school. Most kids skip out the door, thrilled with the prospects of summer break. I was crushed to leave a woman who’d become such a comfort.
Sixth grade added crying fits, seventh and eighth grades added navigating the secrecy and shame surrounding menstruation – a definitively junior high problem. My sophomore year of high school I transferred to another school across town when my pre-pubescent anxiety met it’s soulmate, crippling depression. By my junior year I’d transferred back to my usual high school and I sat in the front row of AP Chemistry, motioning for my teacher to come over to my desk. I’d interrupted her mid-lecture and was socially humiliated, but my anxiety attack was so bad I had to leave the classroom immediately. Thanks a lot, linoleum floors, fluorescent light tubes, and the existence of hydrochloric acid in the room. In college I’d get dressed, drink coffee, eat breakfast, walk to campus, get to the doors of my classroom and do a U-turn. I withdrew seconds before flunking out one semester, unable to approach a classroom and unable to keep up. I filled my time with collegiate peculiarities: sleeping atop a bunk bed with a desk underneath; wandering the dusty, forgotten rows of books on a lonely library floor.
Anxiety is as much a part of me as my dark eyebrows, my dark sense of humor, or my dark wardrobe. It’s a consideration in my every day, conscious or not. I’ve morphed into a self-talk pro and probably do not fully fathom the severity of my brain chemistry as every day is an exercise in anxiety and life integration. Must do normal things, must find a way to get through them. Breathing, check. Acupuncture, check. Bikram yoga, check. Plant-based diet, check. Multiple inaccurate yet well-intended medical prescriptions? Check, check, check, check, check.
I can’t be sure whether I’ll carry the exhausting weight of anxiety with me for the rest of my life. Perhaps the switch off will be as unexpected as the switch on, stepping into a third grade classroom.