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Classroom Stories: Practice at Being Afraid

By Stacy Palen

In my other life, I train horses and riders. This means that I routinely deal with actual life-threatening situations like runaway horses and bad falls. Even non-life-threatening situations such as broken bones, giant bruises, bumps, cuts, and scrapes can seem routine to me but be scary for others.

Because of this background, I sometimes struggle to really understand and empathize with students who literally fear math and have an obvious physiological response to being asked to do it.

Recently, I came across a Facebook post by equestrian Denny Emerson about fear that helped crystallize my thoughts about this.

Two things you should know about Denny: First, Denny is as famous in the horse community as Tom Brady is in football. Second, his sport is more dangerous than most horse sports, as the horses race cross-country on uneven ground over solid fences that don’t come down. It’s not unheard of for people to die doing this sport at the highest levels.

Here’s part of what he had to say:

 

But we all experience things that create the exact flight or fight response as actual extreme danger that are not actually dangerous.

Case in point----Denny Emerson, age 9, is cowering in Miss Gibson's Four Corners School 4th grade math class, trying to remain invisible, as students are handed a piece of chalk, and asked to solve problems on the black board, in front of the whole class. As his name gets called, Denny is suffering the agonies of the damned, just as if he was about to be hurled into a pit of writhing cobras.

Which is another way of pointing out that the fear we so often experience is not actually in direct proportion to the danger we are in, but it feels that way.

So, then, it follows more or less logically, that one way to alleviate being paralysed by fear is to avoid, if possible, real danger, and to try to become better prepared to face challenge that only feels like true danger. Like arithmetic.[1]

 

Denny went on to talk about how to condition yourself and your horse to deal with fear, but I made a note in my mind of what he had to say here.

It resonated with me because a week or so before that, I heard the familiar whine of “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” from one of my students. (I refrained from pointing out that she was in astronomy class…practicality isn’t really the point.)

Denny’s answer is one that I’ve tried to articulate for a long time, and one of the best that I know: “it’s practice.”

Mathematics is not actually dangerous. AT ALL. But for some students, it feels that way.

Good. That makes it an opportunity to practice being afraid while holding it together and getting the job done anyway.

It’s practice at a tool they need in order to find success in the world.

Come to think of it, this may have been what my parents meant when they told me to do hard things I didn’t like because “it builds character.”

I probably won’t tell my students that—it sounds a lot like a curmudgeon's “get off my lawn” rant. But I may spend some time talking to them directly about how this practice can help them in other adrenaline-laden situations.

 

 

[1]Emerson, Denny. Tamarack Hill Farm Facebook Page. “More thoughts about fear, and how to live with the reality of fear without being a slave to fear” Facebook, November 23, 2018. https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10155572672270947&id=109161715946

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