Back to school fears

Rick Ryckeley

My editor returned the column with a note that had me sinking back in my chair rethinking everything. “I remember quite a bit of this.”

She’s correct. I’ve written countless times about going back to school. The importance of wearing the right clothes, having the perfect haircut, and even choosing that perfect seat in the classroom that will be yours for the next nine months. None of that will be found here.

This is the back-to-school story I never wanted to write … until now.

Not all memories from our life spent growing up at 110 Flamingo Street were good. My parents did the best they could raising us, but they didn’t know everything about us. They didn’t know everything about me. This is the back-to-school story I never wanted to write … until now.

By the time I reached third grade, the fear of going back to school was palpable for me. In first grade, I had trouble speaking, and others had a hard time understanding me. Kids made fun of me.

In second grade, reading was difficult at best, and kids again made fun of me. What further embarrassment third grade would hold I didn’t know, but I truly feared what was yet to come.

School is fun right up to the point you start believing you’re not the sharpest crayon in the box. In my case, I felt like everyone was smarter.

The first day of school, walking towards Old Mrs. Crabtree’s classroom, I avoided all eye contact. Instead, I just looked down at the newly polished white tiles of the hallway wishing, somehow, they would swallow me before reaching her doorway. Unfortunately they didn’t.

Every Friday morning, Old Mrs. Crabtree had her students stand at the front of the classroom with backs against the blackboard for the spelling bee. One by one, she’d ask us to spell a word.

If we spelled it correctly, we’d stay standing. If we spelled it incorrectly, she gave a disappointing glare as we returned to our desk.

By the time she got to me, my mouth had gone dry and I could hardly speak, stumbling over even the simplest of words. I felt her cold piercing glare, followed closely by snickers from the remaining standing students, as I shuffled back to the safety of my desk and tried to disappear. If Fridays were embarrassing, then Wednesdays were mortifying.

Every Wednesday just before lunch, Old Mrs. Crabtree had us move our desks to form a reading circle. Each student had to read a paragraph from a selected book. Reading out loud combined three other things I wasn’t good at: speaking, reading, and vocabulary.

I would watch the clock, praying time would run out before my turn. Unfortunately, time never did. Stumbling over every other word, I always sounded as if I had a mouth full of marbles.

Even if it was in my own mind, the laughter rippling around that reading circle every week made me want to shrink down into my chair so small no one could ever see me again.

It also gave me a fear of public speaking. Folks don’t know how dumb you really are until they hear you speak in public and it removes all doubt. So, for years, I didn’t.

I never told my parents about my fears. Guess I was too embarrassed. After all, no one, especially a third grader, wants to admit that they aren’t the sharpest crayon in the box. But my fears were real then and have chased me through out my entire life.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to overcome some of them through talking to children about fire safety during the time I worked at the fire department.

Others I’ve conquered by penning this column every week for the last eighteen years. My editor has taken the time to help educate me on the rules of the English language in ways other teachers couldn’t.

And teachers, what if someone in your classroom feels this way?

Through her efforts, my fear of being the dullest crayon in the box is no more. I thank her for reminding me that life’s lessons can serve to sharpen any crayon. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

Lastly, for all you parents out there, after the shopping for those perfect clothes is done and that perfect haircut is achieved, do one more thing for your kids.

Talk to them. See if they too have any fears about going back to school. You just may be surprised at what they say.

And teachers, what if someone in your classroom feels this way? What would you do? After all, everyone has fears. How awful to go through it alone.

Just wish I had said something to my parents when we lived on that old familiar street not so far away called Flamingo. Perhaps by doing so, my first day of school wouldn’t have been fearful after all.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001. To read more of Rick’s stories, visit his blog:]