I’m in second grade and my teacher is a former nun that tolerates very little nonsense. I am eight and filled with nonsense. Every morning before school, I feel nauseas and homesick for my parents before we even leave the house. My parents take turns trying various strategies to quell the turbulence inside their daughter. Dad puts cassettes into the car player to psych me up. Jump by Van Halen still makes me feel like the version of myself who is too short for her feet to reach the floorboard, watching my shoelaces bounce up and down like snoopy ears, a tornado made of cheerios in my stomach. Mom helps me visualize myself as a seal, with my worries rolling off my velvet body. I stay in the car until the bell rings and my parents and I are nearly late for our respective jobs. My parents give me a kiss on my fingertip to take with me for later. I clench my hand around the kiss in my palm and get out of the car. I take deep breaths of Kentucky air and my heart pounds rapidly inside my chest as I walk into the school building.
When we do art projects, I take twice as long as the other students, determined to color perfectly inside the lines. I press the crayon deeply into the paper, each segment shiny like stained glass. When I look up, I’m the only person still working on my project. The other children’s projects are hanging along the wall. Theirs seem childish, sloppy. My wrist and fingers ache from my effort. The nun is very cross about my dawdling.
After lunch, the anxiety starts to build. A few days earlier, our class had a party and I spilled some orange juice on my desk, drops trailing down the wooden and metal seat. I panicked, knowing that I’d be humiliated if the ex-nun singled me out (she loved telling the class that the unfortunate spiller needed a sippy cup, and everyone laughed. I did not want anybody to laugh. at. me.)
The day of the spill, I cleaned up the mess with my napkin as discretely as I could and felt relieved when nobody noticed. Until later, when it came time for math. As I retrieved my book from the cubby beneath my seat, I felt something sticky against my fingertips. My math book had a tacky coating of orange juice. I froze. It felt too late to confess to spilling the orange juice. I had concealed the spill, surely a worse offense than the original one, and now my math book was ruined. My head pounded. I felt freezing cold and the hair on the back of my neck was standing up. I asked to use the bathroom and then, once I was behind the stall door, allowed myself to release the tears and sobs I’d been holding in since the moment I felt the sticky book cover and felt the panic of not knowing what to do. I hold my mother’s kiss in my hand and bring it to my cheek. I picture myself as a seal, covered in sticky orange juice. I wait until my body settles into its post-cry rhythm, breathing in-in-out, in-in-out, in-in-out. I dab my eyes over and over and blow my nose very hard and go back to class, where everyone has put their book away, and I stare my red eyes forward, not hearing very much at all.
This routine continues successfully for a few days, excusing myself to have little panic attacks in the bathroom stall, until the ex-nun caught on. One day, as I finished my cry, head knocking, mind still half-seal, and opened the door, her eyes met mine. She said she knew what I had been up to, and was telling my parents. The spilled orange juice had turned into a lake and I was drowning. It had never occurred to me that missing math class to have a panic attack every day might be misread as an 8 year old cutting math. I was a liar and a criminal, I had damaged school property, I told myself. My body felt heavy with guilt.
I felt sick. My head throbbed, by body felt hollow. I wasn’t sure if it was a lie or the truth, but I stayed home regardless. I didn’t go back to school until my mom fixed the problem by accident, a few days later. She went to pick up my schoolwork and books, and upon finding my secret, thought nothing of it at all and cleaned the desk and my things up on the spot. She brought my math book home, intact and blessedly unsticky, and after seeing it, I went back to school the next day. But I still felt every hair on my body standing on end when I heard my name, like I had no clothes on and hundreds of eyes were looking at me, listening to my breath, watching me in the stall, as a seal, as a little girl with a kiss in her fist, tossing wad after wad of soggy toilet paper into the bin, trying to empty herself of tears.