When I was in grade 3, the elementary school I attended thought it would be a great idea to show a series of safety videos once a month for a year. The rationale was to alert little children to the dangers that surrounded us in the hopes that we would be more careful around electrical sockets, firecrackers, parked cars, and trains.
Not unlike today, I grew up surrounded by the motivational force of fear. My parents practiced what they affectionately referred to at the time as 'Tough love." If I did something wrong for which I was punished, they'd always say, "I want you to know that this hurts me more than it hurts you."
In an effort to prepare me for the hard realities of life, they tended to focus on possible negative outcomes. So, for example, instead of being rewarded for memorizing 120 cantos by Ezra Pound. My parents would say something to the effect of, "Having memorized all 120 cantos, you should be able to entertain a kidnapper long enough to allow the police to find you." Or conversely, "Don't let any kidnapper know that you are smarter than they are, or they'll kill you out of spite. In the event you are whisked off a street en route to ballet, whatever you do, don't mention Ezra Pound."
This way of thinking extended well into almost everything.
"If you buy that dress, you'll be wasting your money and live to regret it."
"If you go out with that boy, you'll end up in tears."
"If you upset your mother, you'll kill her."
Up until then, the concept of 'fear' had never entered my mind. I climbed trees regularly, repeatedly jumped out of my bedroom window, scrambling down the trellis to the yard, rode horses, and catapulted off high diving boards. Even when I broke my collarbone, I didn’t panic. I remember screaming my head off, but mostly out of anger and frustration. At 8, my winning streak of never having to have stitches or tonsils removed had ended. Before that, any injury I sustained as a child seemed to pale in comparison to my brother. I could go flying into the boards at an ice rink and come away unscathed. I could swim like a fish at the age of four and taught myself how to ride a bike coming away bruised but no worse for wear. My brother, on the other hand, would come home from playing with his friends and have to be rushed to emergency because he had a stick lodged in his throat, or a burst appendix, or was in desperate need of stitches. My Mother would often say that Matthew was frail when he was born, whereas I was a healthy 8.5 pounds and built like a Weeble…made to wobble but not fall down.
But, at the age of 8, thanks to the well-intentioned men and women at Holy Family Elementary, fear became a household word. Not only were they instilling the fear of God in us, but by extension, fear of everything. Thunderstorms, killer bees, errant threshers in open fields. Once, a boy I liked asked me if I wanted a present while standing next to me in the schoolyard. When I said, "Yes," glad to be the object of his affection, he stuck a hat pin in my leg. So, now I was afraid of boys.
At the time, we lived in a rural community outside of Toronto. The word "City" was in the name of the place, but like everything else about the area, it was merely unbridled optimism. The grocery store, the gas station, the bakery and the bank hardly a "city' made. It was more like a smattering of buildings in the middle of a cow pasture. This was a community where the living were outnumbered by the dead. The only thing anyone really had to worry about was dying of boredom.
My school sat on the top of a hill surrounded by nothing. The schoolyard was merely an abundance of field which I would make my way to via a pathway behind our house.
I didn't make friends there, but I did tell a lot of jokes. I have a distinct impression of standing in the schoolyard practicing my newly acquired taste for sarcasm. I also remember being tutored on how to tell time.
"The big hand is on the 3. And the little hand is on the 3. What time is it?"
I'd stare at the face of the clock and, after some consideration, say, "All hands point to 3:00."
"NO!" My tutor would yell out of frustration.
And soon, I learned to be afraid of teachers and timepieces.
A few months into the school year, a family moved in next door to us with a boy who was the same age as me. He was rough around the edges in a Dickensian sort of way. The type most likely to be cast as the Artful Dodger in a production of Oliver. I'd never met a kid quite like him, and I was curious and afraid. My Father always spoke about the family with compassion and encouraged me to be nice to him, and since I always did what I was told, I made an effort to be friends.
It wasn't long before I noticed that Tony "liked" me. This revelation brought with it confusion, terror, and distrust. I began avoiding him, which resulted in an onslaught of attention I didn't want.
"He's lonely and just wants someone to play with," my dad explained." It wouldn't hurt you to be nice."
One afternoon Tony cornered me on the path as I was walking home from school and invited me to the barn he claimed his father owned in the park behind our house. I was about to make an excuse and run for home when my Father's words suddenly echoed in my head. "It wouldn't hurt you to be nice. Be nice. Be nice." So, I reluctantly accepted his invitation.
Inside the barn, easily entered by an unlocked side door, was a tractor, some hay bales, farm equipment, and various things one might see at a carnival or fair.
"Let's sit on the tractor," Tony urged, "And pretend we're farmers."
As I recall, it was a pretty impressive machine. The kind of thing that would make a person feel mighty important. The temptation to sit on it being too hard to resist, I climbed into the seat and proceeded to pretend that I was driving, saying stupid things like, "Hey cow, move out of the way." And, "I reckon that corn is ripe for pickin."
Tony and I were into the second verse of ‘Surrey With a Fringe on Top’ when a two high school kids burst inside and caught us.
"You're breaking the law," they yelled. "We're calling the police." Then they disappeared to have us arrested...or so I thought.
I immediately ran home humiliated, terrified, ashamed that I'd been so gullible to believe that Tony, poor Tony whose family had nothing, could afford a barn, let alone a tractor so fine.
That night I waited with bated breath for the police to arrest me. I was too afraid to tell my parents what I had done. I didn't eat. I didn't sleep. Imagine this as a movie, and I'm in a loop of, "I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it," as I stare terrified from behind a prison door in a cell I now share with an axe murderer.
The next day I poked around my backyard. There was a mound of snow from when my dad had shovelled earlier in the day, and I thought I'd take my mind off my predicament by practicing skiing on it with two pieces of cardboard attached to my shoes. I had just landed at the bottom when the same teenage boys came by and, from the back fence, yelled that the police were on their way.
In my life, there have only been a handful of moments when I was that frightened. In all those other instances, I was much older and in a far better head space to rationalize my fear. But here I was, 8-years-old and, in my mind, guilty of a crime punishable by, if not death, life in prison. None of the instructional videos I'd seen had prepared me for the consequences of breaking and entering.
I went inside and waited. One hour. Nothing. Two hours. Still nothing. Three hours and the police still hadn't arrived. Fear, to a kid with an active imagination, is a dangerous thing.
My Mother called me down to dinner, where I picked unceremoniously at my food.
"Something wrong?" she asked, and I burst into tears. Between sobs, I managed to spill my guts to my parents, who uncharacteristically assured me that I had done nothing wrong and would not be going to prison…although later, my Mother would use the opportunity to address the topic of gullibility.
Later that night, my Father asked me about the two teenage boys who had threatened me. I knew who they were, but I could tell from the look on his face that he intended to confront them. Since I believed that would only make things worse, I lied and said I'd never seen them before.
Two days later, I called on Tony, and the two of us made our way over to the field near the scene of the crime. I knew they'd show up eventually, and sure enough, there they were. The two teenage boys approached us, grinning with that smug self-satisfaction that goes hand in hand with power. You could just see how pleased they were at their ability to use fear as a weapon against two 8-year-olds. But now we knew better and this time, when they tried to scare us, we simply looked fear in the face and told it where to go.
I watched them shrink in size until they simply disappeared, and we never saw them again.