In my dealings with a panicky pupil today, I was reminded of an allegorical story I was told when I was a recently-qualified teacher. As those who have read some of my previous posts will know, I have faced my share of mental health issues over the years, and early in my teaching career I was experiencing heightened anxiety and panic attacks.
As I sat in his kitchen with my teacher mentor, a wonderfully wise, gentle man called Bernie Robson, who is sadly no longer with us, he asked me to close my eyes and painted the following picture:
“Along an arrow-straight length of track, a mighty goods train is thundering towards you. In front of you, struggling against their bonds, lies a prisoner roped to the rails. The train driver has seen the impending disaster, and has applied the brakes… but with the weight of wagons behind it, the engine has no chance of stopping in time. It will plough headlong over you and the stricken prisoner in precisely 45 seconds.
The ropes are tied in 8 sturdy but simple knots. Each will take 5 seconds to loosen. So if you retain your composure and focus, untying each knot with single-minded sang-froid, you will have 5 seconds left over to drag the prisoner to safety… The key message, therefore?
DON’T LOOK AT THE TRAIN!”
Bernie appreciated, of course, that when your mind is playing tricks on you and refuses to allow you the calm and control required to negotiate even the apparently simplest of mundane tasks, such a message is easier said than done.
But I’ve never forgotten it, or him. And at times like this afternoon, when I pass it on to others, I hope it helps them too.