Your Students and Their Fearscapes

The tornado sirens began to wail. The cheerful songs being sung by cartoon characters over the loudspeakers gave way to warnings: “Take shelter!” “Retreat to the nearest building!” “Cover your heads!” My mom grabbed my hand and we raced for the main entrance. The leaves of the Silver Maples that lined the amusement park’s thoroughfare were flying through the air like confetti. Park employees directed us to the shelter that housed the ticket stands and turnstiles. We gathered tightly together. And, as more and more families rushed in, we crowded closer and closer together. When there was no more space available, a park employee pressed the red “Emergency” button with his palm. Oversized garage doors unfurled from the ceiling and slowly closed around us. We stood in darkness. The sounds of howling wind, straining chains, and hail pelting the metal doors like a machine gun filled the spaced. I covered my ears. I closed my eyes. And, I waited for the storm to be over.

That was Kings Island (outside of Cincinnati) circa 1978. But that is also where I go (inside my head) whenever I decide to start a new project. Even right now as I write this there’s a part of me that exists there. I call it my “fearscape”. It is the space that separates who I am from who am meant to be.

I’m not the only one with a fearscape. We all have them. Indeed, for most of us, I think it is fair to say that we are divided individuals. “Who we are” and “Who we are meant to be” do not match up. This is not how it is supposed to be. And, to bring this existential mismatch to the attention of my students, I ask them to doodle their fearscapes. More specifically, I have them to do the following:

  • On the left-hand-side of a piece of paper, I have them draw a doodle of who they are right now as they are in their comfort zone.
  • On the right-hand-side of their paper, I have them draw a doodle of who they were born to be, what they look like when they strip away all of society’s expectations and all of their armor, what their spark looks like.
  • In between these two images I have them draw their fearscape; that is, the landscape of fears and obstacles that keep them cloistered inside their comfort zones.

While they are doodling, I ask them to consider these questions:

  • What is it about “who you were born to be” that you admire?
  • What is it about “who you are right now” that you would like to change?
  • Where do self-doubt, insecurity and shame reside within you?
  • What moments of failure and embarrassments do they ask you to relive?
  • How do you imagine the struggle against your fears?

To encourage them in this exercise in vulnerability, I share my doodle with them:

Now, I do not care to admit it. But, for most of my life, I was enslaved by the expectations of others. I did what I thought others wanted me to do. I thought what I thought others wanted me to think. I became what I thought others wanted me to become. I blended in. I did a lot of pretending. I was tamed, domesticated. And, I masked my insecurities in facial hair and muscles. That’s the left-hand side of my doodle. Now, I still use facial hair and muscles as shields. But no longer existentially. More and more, I’m driven by an instinctive curiosity to simultaneously reach out in multiple directions to connect with and connect together the complex diversity of differences that surround me. That’s the right-hand side of my doodle. And, in between, is my fearscape. It is populated by one demon; however, that demon is representative of many fears. And, whenever I consider starting something new, a tornado siren wails in my head. My fears burrow their fingernails into my forearms. They wrap their creeping vines of venom around my throat and a red “Emergency” button appears. They tell me to press it. They tell me that a storm is coming. They tell me to encase myself in metal, hunker down, and go quiet…at least until the storm passes.

Well, that’s my doodle anyways.

Here are some of my former students’ doodles:

In addition to doodling their fearscapes, I ask my students to write down (on a separate piece of paper) what their fears whisper to them whenever they step to the edge of their comfort zones. I have them give those pieces of paper to me. It’s my way of taking those words from them. Here are some of the whispering words they’ve given to me to take:

  • “You are not going to get everything done by the time you die and you will die incomplete.”
  • “Nothing you do will ever really matter compared to the achievements of others.”
  • “I am not good enough or disciplined enough to do what I need to do.”
  • “You are not special, you don’t stand out, you don’t look good on paper, you can’t get hired, you will struggle.”
  • “How is this going to make me money? How do I help my mom? Oh my god…”

My fears tell me similar things. Indeed, I was only one year and a month into my self-emancipation when I doodled that doodle. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not free. My emancipation is impermanent, incomplete. It is a constant struggle staying free. Because, my fears want me back. They are always and endlessly calling me back. Now, I do not want to go back. But sometimes I get so tired of the struggle, confused by our culture and lost without the guidance of a limelight. I want a life of agency. If you cross my path, I want to leave a mark (a good mark). And, to have those things, I had to learn what it was that I feared (material poverty and being laughed at). I also had to learn how to co-exist with those fears. Because, that storm my fears are always warning me about…it never passes. I just grow old.

I ask my students to doodle who they are, who they are born to be and their fearscapes so that they can get to know what it is that they fear and see what’s on the other side – their cosmic inheritance.

The hail finally stopped. The wind slowed down. The rain gave way. The metal doors opened up. We all shuffled out of the darkness. The sun was shining. The birds were chirping. I looked down at my Pumas and growled liked a cat. I was a cat. Still wild. And, I raced down the thoroughfare naively believing that I had to be the swiftest creature to ever walk the Earth.


I’m writing a book on my pedagogy called Rewild School, blogpost-by-blogpost. This is one of those blogposts. You can learn more by visiting Rewild School.

Thanks. – shawn