■ New skills for managing old fears
■ Positive thought patterns
■ Methods for reality testing
■ Willingness to experiment
There was a story that all the kids at Caroline's school told. I don't know if they believed it but some of them certainly acted as if they did.
On the way from Caroline's home to school there was a little old cottage, hidden back on a big block of land. Even the size of the land made the cottage seem different and scary because most of the land around it had been divided into smaller blocks for bright, modern homes with neat little gardens. You could only just see the little old cottage, as if it were trying to hide itselfbehind the gnarled trees and shrubby garden that no one seemed to care about any more. There were tall, tangled, prickly rose bushes, and weeds as high as a kid's head.
At times, but not very often, the children had seen a little old woman make her way along the cracked, leaf-covered path from the front door to the mailbox. Her fingers were twisted in funny, knotty shapes, her body was bent over and her back hunched. She shuffled along at a slow pace and, if she lifted her head to look at you, her face was all wrinkly. Wispy gray hair grew out of her chin. Sunken eyes followed you with a gaze that—as the story went among Caroline's friends—would put you in a trance if you looked back at them.
"The witch at Number 97" was how most kids spoke ofher. "Don't look in her eyes," you could hear them say. "She'll capture you in a magic spell, take you into the house and never release you again." Many gruesome tales arose about what happened to kids who got captured, but if you asked anyone to tell you the name of someone who had been captured, of course, they couldn't.
As a result Caroline's friends would never pass the house alone. What if the witch at Number 97 looked at them? Would they be strong enough not to look back?
Going to school in the mornings they would gather on a corner a block or two away and hurry by in a group. At the end of the day they'd meet in the schoolyard and again go home in a group. They felt safer and more secure in numbers.
Now, Caroline played the recorder so well that she was asked to join the school band, and that meant staying after school one afternoon a week to rehearse. No one else in the band lived in her direction, so after the first rehearsal she had to walk home, past Number 97, all by herself. The late afternoon was cloudy and that clear light of day that often helps your confidence had disappeared from the sky. Caroline set out as she normally would but as she began to approach the little old cottage it looked scarier than ever.
The tall trees surrounding it blew in the breeze and cast moving shadows on the sidewalk that she walked along. For a while she hesitated, not knowing what to do. How was she to face this fear of the witch? What might happen to her ifthe witch of Number 97 came out and looked at her? She thought about going back to school. If she hurried she might get there before all the teachers left. She could perhaps call her mother to come and pick her up. But what if some of the older kids were still there? Ifthey learned she was too scared to walk home by herselfshe would be the laughingstock ofthe school.
There was another way home, but it was longer and the evening was getting dark. She could go that way, but it would be scary in the dark, too. She could, but didn't want to, turn back to school. She could, but didn't want to, find another way home in the dark. No, she thought, she had to be brave and press on past the witch's cottage at Number 97.
As she got closer, the little old cottage, partially hidden behind the unloved garden, seemed to grow bigger and more menacing. She wanted to run but felt she really needed to just walk her way through the experience. She took some deep breaths and tried to think ofsomething different: home, Mom and Dad waiting for her, her favorite supper, the comfort of her own bed when she snuggled into it tonight. While thinking of those things the ominous look of the old cottage seemed to fade. It didn't feel so scary.
When she started looking at and thinking about the witch again, the cottage loomed big and frightening in her thoughts. In fact, the more she looked at it, the worse she felt. "No," she said to herself, "concentrate on how good it will feel to get home," and with that she started to feel easier. Caroline smiled to herself. She was enjoying this little trick she had learned to play in her mind.
But then, as she reached the front gate to Number 97, Caroline's heart almost stopped. She forgot about her thoughts of home. The little old woman was out in the garden . . . looking at Caroline! Caroline tried not to look back but from the corner of her eye saw the little old lady was smiling at her, warmly. She noticed the woman seemed smaller and less threatening than when the other kids were around telling frightening stories about her. Nonetheless, Caroline kept walking, thinking of home and letting the fear subside as she thought of those nice feelings of having a warm supper with her family.
Maybe that is a good enough place to leave the story, but that is not quite where it ended. Each week as Caroline walked home by herself the little old woman of Number 97 was there to give her a smile. Caroline, thinking she didn't seem as scary as all the stories the other kids told, began to smile back. She almost jumped out of her skin the first time the little old woman said hello, but it wasn't long before Caroline looked forward to stopping and talking with her on her way home from school. The little old woman had so many interesting stories to tell. Actually, her name was Mrs. Walcott, she told Caroline.
Before the end of the term, Caroline asked Mrs. Walcott if she could interview her for a history assignment her class was doing on the local neighborhood. She sat in the little old cottage with her gentle new friend, sipping lemonade and eating cookies while she found out more than any of her friends learned. She even got an A+ for the assignment.
At first her friends didn't believe that she was friends with witch at Number 97 or that she'd visited the little old cottage and returned. Perhaps, they said, she was entranced and one day might be captured forever. They seemed to want to hold on to their own beliefs that the old woman really was a witch who stole children. One by one Caroline led them past the house and introduced them to Mrs. Walcott. It wasn't long before they, too, were all able to dispense with their fears. Stories about the witch of Number 97 and disappearing children began to fade into distant memories.
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