Gaining Control

Jane Sanders Illustration

I am, as an adult, what could best be described as “high-strung” or “tightly wound.” Those less charitable might call it “neurotic” or “borderline OCD” or “really annoying.” I sweat the small stuff, in other words. In some ways, I’ve made that work for me. It translates, professionally, to being “detail-oriented,” which means I think very carefully about whether the hyphen between “detail” and “oriented” should be there. (It should.) In my personal life, it translates into frequent hand-washing and special-ordered sanitizers and triple-washing the supposedly already triple-washed bagged baby spinach.

I didn’t just wake up one morning like this. I was an oversensitive, anxiety-ridden child, too. If anything, I’ve gotten much better as an adult – because I can hide it slightly better and because I have more control over my life, and more control, at least for me, equals less anxiety. If, for instance, I know that I can just get into my own car and drive myself away from a social gathering I’m not enjoying, that knowledge alone makes me able to relax and enjoy myself, whereas when I was 6 or 7 or even 12, I would often just opt not to go to parties because I would get too stressed out just thinking about being stuck there.

I hated — hated — going to school because I had even less control there. I lived in fear of getting in trouble or being teased, and although the former rarely happened, the latter did, frequently. I would eat nothing for lunch except Campbell’s soup in a thermos; I was very finicky about clothes and picked outfits based on what felt best, not what matched; I read way above my grade level and was always lost in a book; and every day when we sang, “Puff the Magic Dragon,” I burst into tears without fail.
All of these things, along with my pathological inability to fight back, made me an easy target.

For the first two years of school, though, my life was made much more bearable by a wonderful, patient woman named Lisa Sirgo. Ms. Sirgo taught me for both kindergarten and first grade, and though she might have had to bite her tongue, she never once called me out on my quirks. Instead, she was gentle with me and gave me tools to combat my fears.

When I freaked out during a fire drill – the noise, the chaos, the threat of danger – she provided my family with a list of all of the scheduled drills for the rest of the year so that I could know in advance. “And,” I recall telling my dad, “if the alarm goes off on a day when it’s not scheduled, then I will know for sure that I should be freaking out because the school is burning down!” When a sixth grade teacher who didn’t fully respect my delicate-special-snowflake nature snapped at me in the cafeteria and I then started having panic attacks before lunchtime because I was scared it might happen again, Ms. Sirgo let me and my best friend eat lunch in her classroom for weeks – until I decided on my own that I was brave enough to face the lunchroom again.

She would have been a special woman to have in my life at any age, but having her for those first two years was really crucial, I think, to my entire social development. Had I gotten a bully of a teacher or even just one who was too overburdened to pay much attention to me (I was neither a discipline problem nor struggling academically, so I would have been pretty easy to ignore while I sat quietly hyperventilating in the back of the classroom), I don’t think I would have come to love learning as much as I ultimately did.

When I finished my thesis, I thanked Ms. Sirgo on the acknowledgments page because I really think a lousy kindergarten teacher could have soured me on school forever
I have already written about how much I love the fact that Ruby is attending school in the neighborhood where I grew up, but I can’t even properly express how excited I was when I got an email from her school last week – from the new literacy specialist, Lisa Sirgo. The email ended with a P.S. to me, using my childhood nickname: “Yes, Katy, it’s the same Ms. Sirgo. I am looking forward to getting to know Ruby.”

I ran into her at Morning Meeting and gave her a hug with Georgia on my hip. This morning I waved at her across the playground while Georgia toddled at my feet and Ruby clung to my waist. This is just one more reminder of why I’m glad to have come home to raise my kids.

Ruby is a very different kid than I was, as I have said countless times. She may be just as nervous as I am in a situation, but she bulldozes in while I hang back. She is a leader, a do-er, a talker. She is hilarious and insightful and wise beyond her years. She is terrific. But she still can be a challenging kid – in some ways, even more challenging than I was.

I have no doubt, though, that Ms. Sirgo is up to the challenge – and I know that however different we are, Ruby and I will now have one more thing in common.

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