When it happened, the first thing I would notice were their eyes. It was never a flash of realization, but rather a wave. I might stutter, start to sweat, lose my train of thought, and would start to realize this was more than just a brain hiccup. I’d notice that they were all looking at me. As the wave washed over the room, my heart would start hammering, like thunder rolling in during a storm. An imaginary hand pushed down on my chest, and I would feel an intense desire to hide or run outside– anything to not be looked at. It felt like all I could see were 35 pairs of teenage eyes watching me, and eagerly anticipating my next move.
Of course they were watching me, though — I was their teacher.
I’ve been dealing with panic attacks for most of my adult life. They don’t happen often. What’s more frustrating is that, like many who deal with anxiety, there’s no specific trigger that sets them off. High-stress jobs or situations don’t tend to spark them. I’ve fallen down a cliff (seriously), and I’ve worked pretty high-stress jobs without panic rearing its ugly head. In fact, the first big attack I had in college occurred after a particularly annoying apartment move. In addition to all the chest tightness and flight instinct, anxiety also likes to play tricks with the mind. During that move I began to irrationally fear my own death. At two in the morning, I called my mom sobbing, convinced that the mole on my chin was cancerous and that I was going to die that night.
By the time I was accepted into Teach For America, though, anxiety attacks were pretty rare. Therapy had given me the tools to deal with panic as soon as it felt out of hand. Somehow, I even managed to get through my first year of teaching without experiencing an abnormal level of anxiety. Sure, I still had the normal, “Oh crap, what am I going to DO with them right now/tomorrow/next week?” that most of us experience. For the most part, though, I found myself going through the typical emotional first-year-teacher cycle.
During my second year, however, I noticed that being in front of my students had become more mentally taxing than I realized. Nothing had changed: I was still exercising as much as I had my first year, and the classes I taught were arguably less stressful. The only that had changed was the way my mind reacted to being in front of 35 kids in rotation for 8 hours a day.