When my five-year-old old son woke up that morning, he insisted I call him Peter Parker. It was the time in his young life when he was mesmerized by the adventures of Spiderman so I assumed his request was made because he was fantasizing about being a superhero. During breakfast, I forgot about his morph and accidentally called him Cameron. He refused to respond or make eye contact. When I asked Peter Parker to take his empty oatmeal bowl to the sink, he smiled, stood and proceeded to the kitchen.
When he arrived at school, he announced to his kindergarten teacher and class that he wanted to be called Peter Parker. The kids giggled and honored his request. Mrs. Larsen agreed, but told him he needed to morph back into himself that afternoon before the kindergarten concert.
Parents filled the bleachers in the gym that had become the makeshift auditorium. The music teacher had arranged a variety of noise-makers on the gym floor and was preparing to showcase the songs the small voices had been practicing all year. The kindergartners stood single-file in the hallway waiting to make their grand entrance.
I could see my son at the front of the line. He appeared to be distracted as the music teacher gave the signal to enter. As the kids began their march into the gym, my son dropped to his hands and knees and began to slink across the floor in Spiderman-like fashion, accentuating each arm movement with his fingers spread as if they were webbed. From the bleachers I could hear the snickers from the kindergartners behind him. When he got to the spot on the line where he was supposed to stand, he turned on all fours, raised his forearm, put his fingers into position and began to shoot imaginary webs in the direction of the bleachers. Some of the parents began to whisper and glance my way to watch my reaction. As his parent, I was half mortified, half entertained by the unfolding drama. I was mortified only because I wanted my son to be the kind of child who respects the wishes of his teacher; and entertained because it was hilarious.
He sang the songs he remembered, sat quietly when some of the students stepped out front to use the noise-makers; but mostly looked around and kept watch for potential bad guys. When the concert ended, the students were free to go with their parents. Cameron walked over and I sensed he was still in Peter Parker mode. We gathered up his back pack and headed for home.
For the next few days, he answered only to the name of Peter, but in the evening, I insisted I would only read a nighttime story to Cameron. We eventually returned to our normal and the episode faded without mention.
Years later I asked my son if he remembered the Spiderman concert and he finally shared his thoughts. The kindergarten concert was the first time he would have performed in front of a large group and he said he had been terrified. To manage his fear leading up to the show, he morphed into the brave Peter Parker. When he saw the large crowd of parents, his fears heightened and he needed the superhero to conquer it. He shot a magic web every time he felt like he wanted to cry.
He has since learned that stage fright is normal and that there is nothing to fear. In fact, he’s extremely comfortable talking to crowds and has a way of cracking himself up.
Thinking about it now, I believe his plan was brilliant. The size of the fear relegated the size of the tool. If he were slightly scared, he needed only to morph. If the fear hit him in the face unexpectedly, it called for superhero powers. Each time the fear reared its head, he summoned a magical web.
Recently, I was asked to speak to a crowd. As I prepared for my introduction, I thought of my son’s courageous superhero and started to smile. I didn’t morph into Peter Parker, or drop to the floor like Spiderman, but I was able to muster the appropriate amount of courage it took to conquer my fear.
I think the key is to find the fear-fighting tool that feels right to you. Maybe it’s a superhero, or perhaps it’s a ritual, rock or lucky charm. All I know is that fear is like those parents in the bleachers. They can paralyze us with fear, or teach us to create miraculous webs.