School of dark socks, school of dark thoughts

grade 1

Dark socks hide the dirt, but might make for sad expressions

School was a long time ago now for me, as the picture attests. But somehow, every year, the back-to-school feeling twists in my belly. The smell in the air at this time of year; the end-of-summer breeze; the flowers forming their seedpods. Everything reminds me.

Zipping up my daughter’s stiff new pencil case takes me backwards in time and makes me think of the dark socks I wore when I really wanted white ones, and the chemical smell of the Xeroxed handouts with number puzzles on them that I didn’t understand. Too afraid to say, convinced I was already supposed to know, convinced, also, that I would never know, and everyone else would.

The back-to-school anxiety is a hard one for kids to figure out, because it is such a mix of nervousness and sheer excitement. The year (which really does begin in September) is wide open with possibility. At breakfast on the first day, my daughter asked, “What does nauseous mean?” And then when I answered, she said quietly, “I think I might be that.”

A few minutes after our discussion, my daughter went upstairs to brush her teeth, and my husband came down. He is a teacher, and has been one for many years. But between bites of toast and sips of coffee, he grimaced and said, “I’m nervous.” Later still, I heard from a friend who teaches at the graduate level, and she, too, confessed her queasiness. On a certain level, she said, it was performance anxiety. But it went deeper than that too — back through the fogginess of déjà vu to that more specific memory of school jitters. The years of schooling are so ingrained in us that the feeling never really leaves.

As a reader and speaker, I can relate to performance anxiety, and I know that if it doesn’t paralyze you, it can actually spur you on. But at a more basic gut level, I can also relate to my “nauseous” daughter, and everyone heading back to school. School puts us in a context: us among them. We stand out so strongly to ourselves that we can’t possibly imagine how we will fit in. The questions spin, and tangle with our nerves. What will they think of me, how will I know where to line up, what if I have to go to the bathroom, what if I need a partner and no one wants me, why do I have to wear dark socks, what’s in my sandwich and why isn’t anyone else eating yellow jam? One more question comes to mind. Why are we so afraid of each other?

I think the best definition of courage comes from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (I loved this book as a child, but have to admit as an adult that the movie is even better.) When the Cowardly Lion finally finds himself in front of the wizard, he still doesn’t realize he’s had what he seeks all along. “There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger,” the wizard tells him. “The True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”

Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, from the first edition, 1900, by WW Denslow

Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, from the first edition, 1900, by WW Denslow



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8 responses to “School of dark socks, school of dark thoughts

  1. jim

    Wonderful post Kristen! “I think I might be that’ ! Love it!

    And about courage. How true. How can one be considered courageous if one does not know fear? The word is much misused.

    Were you told to cross your ankles for the school picture? You have a wonderful memory!

    • kristendenhartog

      Yes, we would have been told to cross our ankles. Funny how much easier it is to remember the small details than the big picture.

  2. Marilyn

    I also remember all those anxieties of school. They are so acute on the first day…will I like my teacher, will I know any kids, will I be able to do the harder work….But is all seems to work out and usually it is the fun times that we remember best.

    • kristendenhartog

      It might be interesting to test that theory! List all the good things you remember about school days and then list all the bad/scary things. I think the latter would win out for me. But I somehow turned out happy nonetheless.

  3. Maryann

    I like some definitions I have read about courage. They say that you recognize the fear, which everyone has, but then act or move forward in spite of the fear. Going ahead in the face of fear is courageous.

    I was one who was terrified of first days of school. And yes the scary things on my list is very long! But I forced myself to go through those things, so I have decided I was a courageous little girl:)

  4. kristendenhartog

    May it stay with you through the years!

  5. Lenny

    Dark socks for you. Red shoes for me!

    As an adult so many situations feel like the first dayof school – walking into a room full of neighbours for Book Club or a meeting room full of colleagues. I still have to will myself, acutely aware of the pressure to define one’s uniqueness while fitting in to the group dynamic.

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