The Smurfs couldn't protect me either ...

Sunday, December 30, 2012

I'm afraid of house fires. I know, I know, saying that you're afraid of house fires is kind of like saying you're afraid of spiders or the apocalypse or Lady Gaga ... everyone is.

But I'm not talking ordinary, run of the mill scared. I mean, I am really and truly paranoid about burning my house down. I won't leave the house or go to bed with the dryer running, I refuse to use my perfectly good toaster oven, and when I blow out a candle I sit there and watch it until the last little ember dies down, just in case one of them decides to fly out of its little glass prison and torch my living room rug.

And it all started in kindergarten ...

OK. Raise your hand if you were scarred for life by well-meaning kindergarten teachers and school administrators who were simply trying to teach you some kind of safety lesson, but ended up making you terrified of something on a wholly unnecessary level. I know I'm not the only one. At least I think I'm not.

Kindergarten was a rough experience for me in general. I didn't want to go. Because before then, I had gone to work with my mom every day. I had toys in every office in the building, I had snacks in the office fridge, and I even had a parking spot for my Barbie car out front (we lived right down the street). Life was good. And then, all of a sudden, it sucked.

I didn't like the other children. They were loud and obnoxious, had snot in their noses, and had no understanding of the value of putting in a good 40-hour work week. I didn't like the stuff we had to do. I had not willingly taken a nap since infancy, wasn't forced to do so at home, and I didn't intend on starting to nap along with a group of smelly strange kids, lying in rows in the floor like sardines on little plastic mats. I already knew how to read and write and count and tie my shoes. Basically, I felt that kindergarten was for other people -- other people who weren't me. And I missed my mom.

This resulted in a lot of crying. So much, in fact, that the teacher would call my parents and tell them that I refused to participate in anything, and my dad ended up threatening me with the loss of my Barbies if I didn't shape up. It was the worst of times.

These problems were compounded by my school's gung-ho efforts to educate all us youngsters about fire safety. There were books, drills, classroom talks and guys dressed up in giant fireman dalmatian costumes. Which was fine.

But then came the video.

In this video, you see a happy little family, all decked out in their early '80s gear, come home and enjoy their evening, then go to bed. Then the live action switches to a shot of the outside of the house, being actually EATEN by a gigantic animated fire, with teeth.

The fire had teeth.

They were fangs, more like. Razor sharp, and they just chomp, chomp, chomped that house to bits. And the fire had a maniacal look in his eyes, like he was enjoying it. This was the stuff of freaking nightmares.

Back to live action, the kids of the family coughing and struggling for air on the floor of their bedroom, unable to open the door and get out because of the flames roaring down the hallway. They escaped in the end, but only because they had a specially prepared fire escape plan and one of those little rope ladders that they could throw out of their window and use to climb to safety in their Smurf pajamas.

I didn't sleep for weeks.

Every time I closed my eyes, all I could see was that huge angry fire, poised over my house with its gigantic mouth open, teeth gleaming, just waiting to burn us all into oblivion. And I didn't even have a rope ladder. I was dead meat.

My parents did the best they could. We re-arranged the furniture in my room and my dad went through about a whole can of WD-40 making sure that I could climb up on a table and open my bedroom window by myself. Because obviously, if there was a fire, I was on my own. Because everyone else would be dead. Obviously.

I survived kindergarten and the subsequent 16 years of education that followed (college included), but was never quite able to shake my overblown fear of succumbing tragically to smoke inhalation, or going down in a literal blaze of glory while trying to rescue my dog from the smoking ruins of my house.

My brother had his own dark experiences with school safety education programs. When he was in kindergarten, "stranger danger" was a big deal. I don't think he ever learned about fire safety, but he was told that every person he didn't know by name was likely to abduct him. This resulted in a year or two wherein he couldn't play outside because every time a car drove by our house he felt the need to run and hide in the garage. Kindergarten wasn't the best experience for him either -- his attempts at organizing the other children's playground activities for them were not well-received. Apparently, the early education system in Louisiana in the 80s was just not ready for us.

To make sure that my brother and I weren't just exceptionally wimpy and weird children, I've talked to a pretty wide variety of people about this over the years, and it seems that everyone had a similar story. Some people grew up with an unnatural fear of the police, or Halloween candy, or crossing the street. You name it, my generation has a phobia for it.

And just so you know, I may have suffered at the hands of kindergarten, but they did not conquer me. I never did take a nap. Not one single, solitary time.