I was a student for 19 years and a teacher for 15 years, and every single fall, every single one I was anxious when labor day approached and the start of school reared up to meet my daily tremulations. It was the same dream for years: I’m at school and there is a big test and I haven’t studied at all and there’s nothing I can do about it. That feeling, after 35 years was still as strong, that anviled weight of pure crushing fundamental failure never faded with time. One would think that becoming a teacher would mitigate it, but I guess teachers are ‘tested’ in just about as many ways as students are, particularly at the start of the year. They have to initiate and maintain the culture of a classroom: that’s really the first job. If you blow that in any of your classes, you’re in for a long year. Independent of culture, you have to present a strong front to all your students, to your administrators/bosses, to any parents you happen across, to your advisees, players, dorm dwellers if boarding. It’s test after test, even for the teachers.
But students are immediately shoved into the crucible and have less of a sense of a formed identity at that point in development than teachers. They have all the same ‘professional’ pressures along with the added weight of exaggerated social pressures, which are just as trying for them. Will the other kids like me? Accept me? Stare at me in horror? Will I fit in? Will I make any friends? Have anyone to sit with at lunch? Stare at my pimple till it explodes? That’s at least half the battle for them. So with these added social and academic challenges, some anxiety about the beginning of school is unsurprisingly common. And often the impact of this anxiety is entirely invisible, as it’s very infrequent that a teen can eloquently express their fears and concerns to an adult, much less be able to process them and cope. So what can we do to help our young students with substantial anxieties about the return to school?
The answer requires a look at the definition of anxiety. The tamest version is the one that psychologists love to point out in the attempt to normalize those that are struggling: “anxiety is the typical feelings of concern that come up in response to life stress.” If was worried that I left the stove on as I left for the doctor, we could call that “anxiety,” and it would be normal and healthy, unless anyone is eager to burn down their house… But when we hear the word anxiety in most contexts, I don’t think that’s what is implied.
A closer and more clinical definition might be “when the response to life stress exceeds the threat of the origin of the fear.” Therapists utilize this one effectively to diagnose anxiety clinically, and it works well enough for that purpose. But the shortcoming is that it’s generic quality conflates a set of low level chronic worriers in the category of GA (or Generalized Anxiety) with more severe forms of anxiety and related disorders like agoraphobia or panic disorder. To describe anxiety as just fear gone awry to someone with a panic disorder is like telling the Hulk that his problem is that he just needs to chill.
I would argue that only a more specific definition of the nature of this disunity will do in the task of both linking generalized anxiety with the more severe forms and distinguishing it, and perhaps shine light onto it’s origins for both parties. In seeing thousands of kids in 20 years of education, the pattern in both sets appears to me to be the disunity between the world of ideas and the world of tangibility. Without delving too far into the world of philosophy, there are two planes that we can all likely agree are part of human existence: that world of the imagination where we experience things in our heads that aren’t actually in front of us, and the world of the physical. (As one student put it after a long involved philosophical debate about existence: “all this theory and deconstructionism is great, but afterwards, we’re still all going to be hungry and have to go eat lunch”). Well, he was right. While we can’t deny the existence of the imagination, we do still also have to eat lunch, too.
As adults, we have learned to negotiate these two worlds masterfully. I may be lost in imagination in a board meeting, but when it comes my turn, I’ll be ready to pull up the powerpoint for the crowd. Dreaming of beginning a company that sells t-shirts with Satanic lyrics may be brilliant in one context and horrific in another, but I’ve learned which is which. I’ve also learned it so well that this interplay is invisible to me, operating subconsciously, all the time, every moment of every day.
Most adults have a solid mastery of this relationship, but for the most part, teens have not refined this dynamic at all, and, and in many cases, there is a fundamental disunity between these two worlds in adolescence. This, to me, is the source of anxiety. A disconnect between the imagination and the world that it needs to interact with on a complex level. And a teenage imagination is infinitely powerful and expansive. I remember very specifically staring up at the sky at a Bob Dylan concert when I was in my late teens and the parts inside of me rising to meet the infinity of sky and universe beyond, intertwined with the music and the freedom of the air and the afternoon. That’s a difficult world to staple to… well, lunch.
And this is precisely why it is virtually always the most genius and most imaginative kids that struggle the most with anxiety, whose emotional and imaginative worlds are so intense, that contextualizing them is like trying to tie down the wind. And yet they must do it. They must turn in their essay on The Great Gatsby on Tuesday at 10AM (a book that has perhaps spun their heads into an infinity), they’ve just fallen in love, but it’s time for a… study hall? This is the source of what we call anxiety, that disconnect. For it’s disunity is not typically understood by the matrix of adults that oversee their world, it’s barely even tolerated. If they don’t turn in that essay, it’s a tectonic crisis. When they see this response, they quickly figure they must be broken or defunct in some innate unfixable way if they can’t compartmentalize in the ways that are demanded. This triggers a pathological self-destruction that is unchecked in the absence of a fully formed identity.
And where is this cacophony most acutely felt? You guessed it… it’s at school. For school provides the great nexus of the interaction between imagination and reality. Both the stakes and the inspirations are exaggerated, and it’s essentially impossible to escape from either. You must sit somewhere at lunch, whether it kills you or not– but you also have to dream there and dream then, with hormones and the head of a young life sparked aesthetically on a moment to moment basis. This is the reason why school avoidance and school refusal are so prevalent now, when non-functionality is not tolerated and anxiety is treated vaguely as a curable mentality with enough self-reflection and a generous dose of Zoloft. The demand to eliminate or expedite the very normal process of weaving the concrete and abstract has led to some tension on scales previously unseen. Teenage anxiety rates have doubled in the last few years, as have teenage rates of depression. The increase can easily be linked to a lack of understanding.
I told my mother once about my repeating nightmare once in 6th grade, how I woke up sweating, thinking of how unprepared I was. I couldn’t know it then, but I was, but the dream was really a tableau of the very dynamic I’ve described: the concrete reality of failing a test smashing unavoidably into this giant tidal wave of aspirations I had for myself and my life– all the ways I would dream myself into love and fame and acceptance. It was the sleep-walking poetry of a young heart stabbed by the sobbing of gravitated cement. She laughed then, lightly, and called me a worry-wart. For a long time, I thought she was right.