“Don’t ever turn your back, that’s how you get shanked!” a student I had just met five minutes before yelled out when I turned to write on the board. I hurriedly turned back around and looked across the room, trying my best to remain calm and unbothered. I laughed, “Thanks for the tip”, but inside I was a mess. What am I doing here? In front of a class of 30+ 12-year-olds. What business do I have to teach them anything? Is this the commitment I want to make? Am I doing this for the right reasons? Am I going to get shanked? Am I ready for this?
I remember that class — my first day teaching middle school — like it was yesterday. It was nearly eleven years ago but I can feel the fear all over again. The crippling anxiety that comes with a new endeavor. You see, I had spent just 5 weeks that summer training to be a teacher. That’s it. I had never taught a real class, much less in a subject I hadn’t studied since freshman year of college. I had never made a lesson plan or even spent more than ten minutes with a 12-year-old. To say I was woefully unprepared would be an understatement. I wasn’t being irresponsible, I just simply had never done it before.
Beginnings can be scary. Whether it’s the beginning of a school year, the beginning of a new venture, or just the beginning of a calendar year. But regardless of how arbitrary it might seem to be, a new year often does come with new possibilities. For me, January is full of fresh starts. The beginning of a new semester, days that are thankfully lengthening, and the constant talk of goals and resolutions. It feels like I’m being given this magical gift. A time when conditions seem to come together just right. A chance to make changes and start new habits. To recommit to my goals and long term plans. I spend the holidays anticipating how different things are going to be — excited to get started, but fearful of how it will all play out. Because, of course, anticipation and dread are two sides to the same coin. Fear and excitement can sometimes feel interchangeable. A new year is unknown — and the unknown is scary. But, luckily, fear is the beginning of wisdom.
“But aren’t you afraid?” My inbox is flooded with questions like this from men and women who want to get out onto the road and travel solo, but who don’t feel prepared. Whose brains are filled with worst-case scenarios and what if’s. They want to do something they’ve never done before, they want to step into the unknown — but fear is stopping them. I get it, I want to know the outcome before I begin too. To have the ability to step into something new with some kind of magical prior knowledge or skill set that will make myself impenetrable to fear. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. So I always answer these questions with the same response — of course, I’m afraid. When I travel to a new place or enter into a new experience I have the same fears as anyone else. Probably more, even. I just don’t let them stop me.
I remember the first time I set off on a long road trip alone, many years after I started teaching. My head was dizzy with fears. The kind that reached their way down into my bones. I start to wonder: Did I turn off the lights? Unplug the curling iron? Do my cats have enough water? What if they knock over their water? I wish I would have paid more attention when I learned to change a tire. What if I get into trouble? Who will help me? I wonder what my friends are doing without me. What if I just turned around? What if this isn’t what I expected? What if it is? Is this the commitment I want to make? The way I want to spend my time? Am I ready for this?
Those first few hours on the road were brutal. My heart didn’t stop pounding and I had to convince myself repeatedly that I was going to be okay. And I was. I was more than okay, of course. As I drove through awe-inspiring landscapes my inner monologue was less anxious questioning and more wonder-filled proclamations. The fear wasn’t completely eradicated, but I was learning to trust myself more.
There is this great quote from Chuck Palahniuk that I have written on a post-it by my desk: “Find out what you’re afraid of and go live there”.
Read that again — I just did. Fear is a gift. It’s a compass. It is a teacher. It tells us when we are in danger, but also when we are onto something. When our lives are about to change. Fear tells us that something might happen. The outcome might be good or it might be bad, but something is brewing. I feel myself on the edge of something life-changing, but I’ve never done it before. I’m afraid, but I’m doing it anyway.
I think of my students who often sit with their papers completely blank for several minutes after I give them an assignment. When I direct them to just start they balk. But I don’t know what to do first, they say. You can start anywhere, I tell them. The important part is that you do something. If you already knew all of this you wouldn’t be in this math class. You wouldn’t be growing or learning. Try something and see what happens. It might not work out perfectly the first time, but that’s okay — you’ve never done this before. You’ll learn from it.
Because you don’t know until you do. Until you see it. Taste it. Feel it. Experience it. Until the first time. Until you step into the unknown.
Clarity comes through action.