Friday, December 01, 2017

"That's Better Than Getting Dead"

For the past couple years, one of our students has expressed intense fear about fire, a phobia that her parents tell me was triggered by having witnessed a neighborhood house fire. When she was younger, even talk of fire would cause her to cry so inconsolably that we modified how we handle fire drills. As she's gotten older, her fear has evolved to include the prospect of her family dying in a fire, leaving her all alone.

It's not a debilitating phobia, and generally speaking she's a cheery, enthusiastic kid, but anytime the conversation turns to fire or firefighters or fire engines, as they do in preschool, she either requests that we change the subject or makes herself scarce. I get it, of course, not the specific phobia, but phobias in general. My own daughter had one about crabs and other shellfish, something that's not easy to avoid in the Pacific Northwest. And naturally I have my own phobias (although the difference between mine and everyone else's is that their's are irrational while mine make sense).

Yesterday, I was sitting with a group of kids around the snack table, one of whom was this girl with the fire phobia. I was slightly shocked when, out of the blue, she told us, with a very sad face, "When there's a fire at my house my mommy will die. My sister will die too. And also my dad."

I wanted to tell her that her house was not going to burn down, but my knowledge of her phobia stopped me. The very fact that she was discussing this without hysterics seemed to be a kind of positive step in the direction of facing her fears even if her scenario was disturbing.

"I won't get dead because I will jump out of my window. I might get hurt. I might get a cut or something. But," she added with a small nod, "that's better than getting dead." We all agreed with that.

"I'll go to the neighbor's house, then I'll go live with my grandma in California."

Her face was both sad and sincere as she finished. I recognized evidence of parental counsel in her words, something that was later confirmed by her father, although, the way kids do, she had made it her own. Despite the unmitigated tragicness of the story, it was clear that it brought her comfort knowing that there were concrete plans in place should her greatest fear be realized. I recognized right then that this is also what I do with my own phobias: imagine the worst case then plan for how how I'll deal with it.

We sat in silence for a moment at the end of her story, each of us reflecting, until a boy said excitedly, "If you live with your grandma that means you can have movie night every night!"

She looked at him wide-eyed, then squealed, "Yes!" And then everyone around the table cheered.

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