Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hey Schools, Thanks for Making Me Terrified to Take Risks.

I took shirts to the dry cleaner for the first time in my life today.

As I drove up to what I presumed (correctly, I soon found out) was a 'drive-up' dry cleaner, I saw an advertisement painted on the building that said, "Laundered Shirts w/Hangers, $1.29 each, Limit 3."

This simple sign sent me into near panic; panic predicated on my newness to the process. What the hell do they mean 'w/Hangers?' Do they give me hangers? Do I bring my own hangers? Is this even a damn drive through? Am I an asshole if I just sit in my car and wait for assistance? Because it's cold, shouldn't I just park and take my shirts in?

All of these thoughts, mind you, lasted a total of about 1/2 of a second. Evanescence reciprocates flippancy. By the way, I turned around, went to my house, hung up the dirties, and returned a minute later. As it turns out, as is usually the case in such simple situations, the whole process was quite easy and devoid of embarrassment.

Of course, on the drive to work, I started thinking a lot about where this comes from. Why does my brain even create these worries? Because I don't ever act on these thoughts, will they go away?

My search took me back to being a younger child than I am now, and I started to think about moments of self-consciousness. It became clear that for a time in portions of middle and high school, I, as is likely the norm, became very conscious of myself. That is to say, self-conscious. At times, however, I went a step further. Not only was I conscious of my actions, but I attempted to micromanage these behaviors with the goal of avoiding a social mishap. Of course, as is sometimes the case, even the best micromanagement and diligent planning cannot guard against unforseeable blunders, which end up perpetuating the problem we're trying to address in the first place.

None of this thinking was new. I've since realized how much work it is to be 'on guard' at all times. In an effort not to tarnish one's image, one's image becomes that of a nervous kid. Moving deeper, I began to ask why I was trying so hard to avoid this tarnishing. Eventually, I realized that one large factor might be the school's ability to 'teach-out' risk taking in their students. That is to say, the beauty, possibility, and fun in taking educational risks is not a part of the hidden curriculum of schooling. In fact, given the testing craze these days, taking risks is punishable, eventually, by school closings and firings.

This always has been, perhaps, one of my biggests qualms with the hidden curriculum of schooling. I realized today that it had a great effect on me. It didn't take long before I was expected to do well in school. The work that I did was according to rule, by the book, and was generally accepted as stellar, especially early on. My desire to avoid mistakes permeated my academic life throught the middle years of my schooling. I found myself planning ahead five or six questions in reading or spanish class...meditating on the answer, verifying it over and over, and then, as non-chalantly as possible, raise my hand and volunteer. In this way, I was able to limit my risk. It is quite clear that my avoidance of risky situations permeated my life outside of academics. I was, for a time, very nervous about 'social performance,' so to speak. This stems directly from my avoidance to take risks.

What's the takeaway? The thoughts that went through my head this morning at the cleaners are little more than an annoyance at this point. I don't, as I might have 10 years ago, act on the voice that tells me to know exactly what I'm getting into in hopes that it won't turn out in my favor. I'm lucky enough to have a good family, good communication skills, and varied interests. Otherwise, I might have let this voice of nerves dominate me in my everyday doings.

Beyond me, though, there are kiddos out there in schools who are being systematically and irrepairably damaged. This has little or nothing to do with their classmates, their teachers, their parents. It has to do with the institution of schooling. They are being "taught" at such a young age that risk-taking is inherantly errant and should be avoided. They are not shown with sufficient vigor and repetition examples wherein risk yielded amazing results and perpetuated growth and maturity. They are not asked to think critically about risk, within academics or otherwise, and thus are rendered unable to enter their adult lives with a good sense of damage control. The idea of risk-taking has not been put into an evolutionary context; a context wherein children can see the repercussions of trying out new things. They are not shown the beauty of spontaneity and the unknown, of exploration and dynamism.

If our youth are systematically shielded from all of these things, we will not only be remiss in our academic duties to them. We will be failing them as citizens of this earth and as human beings.


veach st. glines said...

Great post. Made me contemplate my years and risk taking cum learning. Biggest: dropped out of college after soph yr. to work for a yr., gain residency & $$, and go back (risk worked, I did as planned). Most foolish (in retrospect): changed majors mid-freshman yr of college to Landscape Artchitecture (amazing waste of money, time, effort; should have dropped-out at that point instead of 18 months later...except the fear of risk taking was too ingrained.)
Thanks for this insight.

conscientizacao said...

Thanks. Here's a small vignette that highlights how ridiculous this can get. I had a funny experience a couple of months ago at a coffee shop. I am unable to completely silence this voice of nerves and self-conscience. I was sitting there studying one evening under the only available light source. I could have easily used the light from my computer, but it seemed a natural choice to sit under additional light. Anyway, in another natural move, all the neighborhood bugs had chosen to be satellites of this very light as well. Fair enough.

Here's the goofy part. The bugs weren't bothering me in the slightest. In fact, I've never really been bothered by most bugs. Even still, I began to think if my fellow coffeeers were noticing my new winged companions and their invasion of my personal space (or mine of theirs, presumably). I started wondering if they, noticing the bugs on my screen, in my hair, and on my glasses, thought me an idiot for enduring the onslaught. My thoughts then shifted to moving tables. Although this seems simple enough, the voice of which I speak did its best to save me from social faux pas. Why would you move in the first place? Are you afraid of little bugs? Didn't you think about this before you sat down, you know the nature of bugs? It'll take more than two trips with all the stuff on the table. Are you sure you want to be performing for that long? etc....

As I mentioned in the original post, these thoughts are fleeting. In fact, all the aforementioned questions don't do justice to the experience. It's more of a culmination of all these above thoughts along with others, manifesting themselves as a fused emotion-thought. It's quite interesting, now that I think on it. Anyway, a second or so later, I delved back into my studies, and silenced the voice for good. Or, to be more exact, til I got up for another cup of coffee...but that's another story.

I am really happy to be have the ability to be metacognitive, especially when I think about how my 'fears' used to be so instrumental in determining my behavior. I see it as a way to really see how far I've come, as far as my comfort in the world and in my own skin. Ironically, these nervous thoughts are actually quite comforting. Ha.

Your experience with college is, I would guess, one of many. We [I] feign maturity through living alone (in squalor), paying bills (two months late), attending classes (hungover), and make lasting adult relationships (under the influence of whiskey and kegs). I am only beginning to think critically about my college career. I have concluded that I shouldn't have gone to college until probably 40. Maybe then, I'd get my money's worth? Hopefully graduate school will serve me better and vice versa.