Watching for the Brown Truck

mouse in the houseA few years back, I had one fright­en­ing week. I had my head down, work­ing hard, when I heard a com­mo­tion out­side. I got up to look out my front win­dow and saw the SWAT team march­ing towards my house, car­ry­ing guns and wear­ing bul­let-proof vests. Once the sound of the news heli­copters alert­ed me to turn on the TV, I found out what was going on: there had been a work­place shoot­ing in my nor­mal­ly qui­et neigh­bor­hood, and at first law enforce­ment thought the gun­man might be on the loose.

Things even­tu­al­ly went back to being qui­et here, but they’re not the same. There’s an almost tan­gi­ble sor­row hang­ing in the air because of the lives lost. I can’t help but remem­ber the care that our neigh­bor­hood UPS dri­ver, one of those killed, always took to hide my pack­ages from the win­ter weath­er (some­times he hid them so well that I didn’t find them at first, either). The last pack­age he deliv­ered to me was some­thing I’d great­ly antic­i­pat­ed: the line edits for my nov­el. I’ve tied a brown rib­bon on my rail­ing in his honor.

I’m not the only one who wait­ed fear­ful­ly until they announced it was safe to leave our homes again. I was talk­ing to a neigh­bor yes­ter­day, and she said that her five-year-old reas­sured her, dur­ing the time when we still thought there was active dan­ger, by say­ing, “It’s okay, Mom­my, I learned what to do in school. We just get down on the floor and hide.”

That breaks my heart.

Dur­ing that chill­ing week, I was also deal­ing with anoth­er series of mini-scares — and I want to make it clear, I rec­og­nize that these are on a rad­i­cal­ly small­er scale than the tragedy above. But for me they’ve been fright­en­ing events, nonethe­less: mice have sud­den­ly appeared in my house. I’m ter­ri­fied of mice. It’s a fear that goes way beyond ratio­nal, housed in some deep pri­mal cor­ner of my brain, as evi­denced by the fact that my response when I see one is the embar­rass­ing­ly stereo­typ­i­cal duo of jump­ing up on the clos­est piece of fur­ni­ture and shrieking.

My response, although way over-the-top, is a good reminder that fear isn’t always ratio­nal, but it’s always deeply felt. Some­times the things we fear are based on hor­ri­ble real­i­ties, and some­times they’re just a mouse in the house. Wher­ev­er they fall on the spec­trum, fear is still one of the biggest human emo­tions. And writ­ing, I’ve learned, is one way that young peo­ple can effec­tive­ly grap­ple with their own fears. Ask­ing your stu­dents, “What is the thing that most scares you?” and then giv­ing them the chance to jour­nal about it, or to address a let­ter poem to that fear­ful thing, or to con­struct a plot where the char­ac­ter shares their fear, can lead to deeply pow­er­ful writ­ing — as well as, some­times, to a sense that they have some con­trol over the fear­ful thing itself.

With sin­cere apolo­gies to author Neil Gaiman for most like­ly hor­ri­bly man­gling his words, I remem­ber once hear­ing him respond to an inter­view­er who asked why he wrote such fright­en­ing books for kids. He answered that kids are all too aware that there are mon­sters hid­ing under their beds, and it’s no use try­ing to con­vince them oth­er­wise. So he tries to give them sto­ries that acknowl­edge the mon­sters, but where kids still win out in the end.

Some­times, maybe, we can also gain a lit­tle ground on our mon­sters by writ­ing about them — just like I’ve done here.

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