Fear

It is 4:30 am when the fire alarm goes off and I feel like I am shot out of a cannon: “Evacuate! Evacuate!” commands the computerized fire alarm lady. Down the hall, Phoebe is screaming. She is standing in the middle of her room, hysterical. Her reaction was immediate, as if she knew it was coming and was already poised for disaster. She is screaming: “We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die! I hate this house! It’s on fire!”

Sidenote: The house was not on fire. The heating system in the old house we are currently renting is equivalent to a dragon breathing fire into long tube, sending the hot air directly in the path of the fire alarm. Also, I read that dust blown at the fire alarm can also set it off. And we got dust. Lots and lots of it.

Phoebe is in first grade, and first grade is when they learn about Fire Safety. I remember it with Emma because she could not sleep until I bought her one of those fire ladders off Amazon for $139.99.

Fire Safety week sparks a memory for me:

I am in first or second grade, and my classmates and I are assembled in the school library for a “special video.” I am sitting next to my friend Kate and I am wearing polka dot tights. Kate and I are supposed to be sitting indian style with our hands folded in our lap, but instead we are counting the polka dots on my tights; connecting the dots to form shapes and patterns. The librarian yells at us, and tears immediately form behind my eyes. As the video starts, I am already in a fragile state.

The video is on bus safety, but no one tells us this, they just start the movie. It begins with a happy scene of excited children getting on a school bus. They find their seats, they chit-chat, they compare backpacks. One girl is carrying a tissue paper flower with a pipe-cleaner stem. Another boy proudly carries his pet hamster in a cage; he is bringing it in for show and tell. Another sneaky little boy slyly shows his seat mate the pocket knife he has stashed in his school bag.

The boy with the hamster thinks it a good idea to place the hamster on the bus driver’s shoulder, who is currently operating the vehicle. He and his friends snicker, as if to say: “This will be hilarious!”

You can imagine what happens next. Now multiply that by 100 and that’s actually what happens next.

The bus doesn’t just get into a fender bender. The bus flips about five times and finally lands upside down in an embankment. It happens quickly: flip, flip, flip. The bus rolls like a barrel. Then they show the scene again from inside the bus. Kids are getting thrown around like rag dolls. The driver smashes into the wind shield. The pipe-cleaner stem of the tissue paper flower gouges someone’s eyeball. And the pocket knife. Don’t even get me started on the knife. There’s blood everywhere. It is bus safety turned Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The End.

A teacher turns the lights back on. The library is silent with the acceptation of a few kids quietly weeping. But the message of the movie is clear: If you bring crafts, rodents, or cutlery on the school bus you will end up with a pipe cleaner through your eyeball.

For me, the scare technique proved effective. I never messed around on the bus again. The same was true years later, after watching Helen Hunt jump out a window in the anti-drug ABC Afterschool Special Desperate Lives, I vowed to never try angel dust. Or snort anything in general. Same goes for the drunk driving. In middle school we watched a movie with teenagers flying through windshields set to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” That song still triggers memories of sitting on the cold metal stool in the science lab, watching some girl with feathered hair and blue eye shadow shotgun beers while driving her mother’s station wagon before crashing into a tree. The 80’s were big on just scaring the shit out of you.

Now, you may argue that these fear-based teaching techniques just create fearful people. And if you are using me as an example, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But I am also still alive with both eyeballs, so…I could go either way on this argument.

When Emma was in first grade, Fire Safety Week was a call to action: the ladder, the fire escape plan, testing all the fire alarms. Having all these boxes checked made her feel safe and in control. Like me, Emma is very good in a crisis. It’s the day-to-day stuff we can’t handle, like…getting dressed or packing a suitcase. But I digress.

Phoebe, on the other hand, is typically a pretty chill kid, but once the fire alarm goes off, she’s Helen Hunt on angel dust. Phoebe is a fire safety liability.

So I did a little research and decided the first step was to have a fire escape plan. Knowledge is power, right? I printed out the instructions and we all sat down at dinner to Make The Plan.

Emma remembered the drill: “Oh you need to print two worksheets, one for the upstairs and one for the downstairs.”

Phoebe was quiet and still. There was a piece of angel hair pasta hanging out of her mouth, of which she seemed unaware. The only movement was in her eyes, which kept getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger……

“This is scaring me MORE!” And she started to cry.

Sigh.

Phil and I had a conversation with our eyes that said, “Yeah, let’s hold off on this.” We changed the subject and distracted her with Girl Scout Cookies. I was cleaning up in the kitchen when I heard Phoebe say to Phil: “Will you sit on the couch and snuggle with me?”

“Sure,” he said.

I still want to get to the fire escape plan. But maybe for some of us, the first step to being safe is feeling safe. And right now for Phoebe, that safe place is on the couch, in her dad’s arms.

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