Spiders. It’s bad luck to kill one. They’re more afraid of you that you are of them. They eat flies and other annoying pests. They are nature’s little octopodal helpers. These and other platitudes I would routinely bleat out to my young sons and my students, to demonstrate to them that I was a responsible, mature adult, blissfully at one with our wonderful world of nature.
But it was a lie. Even knowing all the good they do and their rightful place in the hierarchy of all God’s creatures, I hate the little bastards. What’s more, the big, ugly hairy ones like tarantulas scare the living daylights out of me. Even coming across a picture of one in a magazine is enough to make me hurl the magazine across the room as my heartbeat notches up a couple orders of magnitude. My poor husband can attest to the fact that they occasionally come for me in the night, resulting in bloodcurdling screams as I leap out of the bed and try to run, usually over his inert body and into the wall.
Many people suffer from phobias, and spend hours with their analyst plumbing the depths of their psyches to figure out the cause of their irrational terror. I don’t have to, because I know the precise moment my arachnophobia took hold.
For two summers in my mid-teens I was employed as a live-in babysitter for two little boys (practice for things to come?) It was a wonderful job in a coastal town, the boys adorable and well behaved, the parents lovely people. One night in the wee hours I was awakened by earsplitting shrieks from the boys, and I arrived in their bedroom even ahead of their groggy parents.
“Spider, spider!” they cried, pointing to the younger boy’s pillow.
“Jordan, Matthew, relax!” I spoke calmly and, to be honest, a little patronizingly, envisioning one of those teeny green spiders having made a wrong turn out of the bathroom. “I’ll take care of it.”
I strode confidently to the bed, and promptly let out my own scream. A loud and reverberating scream that stunned the two little boys into silence and reduced their cries to quavering snuffles. For on that pillow lay a tarantula, a giant hairy eight-legged monstrosity that appeared to me to be the size of a dinner plate. Now, even at the tender age of 15 I knew that there were no tarantulas in New Jersey, but whatever that thing was, I wanted no part of it.
Enter the sleepy mother, who had also responded to her sons’ howls of terror. (and now mine)
“My, goodness, it’s just a little (!) spider. Nothing to be afraid of. Now, Elizabeth, let’s show the boys it’s nothing to be afraid of.” Out of the side of her mouth, she added, for my ears only, “after all, we don’t want them to grow up with a thing about spiders, DO WE?”
She picked up the squirming arthropod and placed the noisome mess of twitching hairy legs in the palm of my hand, which was firmly grasped in her other hand because it, my quivering hand, obviously wanted to be anywhere other than where it was. The little boys came over and looked. The little boys went back to bed. The little boys grew up to have no problem at all with spiders, and for all I know became eminent arthropologists. I, on the other hand, got little sleep that night, and the rest, as they say is history.
When you live in the Northeast it’s fairly easy to avoid encounters with large spiders, especially if you’re not the outdoorsy type. Now and then one will sneak up on you in a Natural History Museum exhibit, necessitating an abrupt departure that is mystifying to one’s companion. Once or twice a medium sized spider will appear hanging from the rear view mirror in one’s car, resulting in the driver’s frantic retreat to the back seat, awkward when one is driving in downtown Boston. (still, it was Boston, so it fit right in with the general traffic flow) For the most part I survived almost spider free until my marriage and my removal to the boondocks rural upstate New York.
Our first home was a cottage in the countryside, with a small, enclosed porch where we kept our boots and running shoes. Soon after moving in, I decided to go for a jog while my new husband was at work. On this glorious May morning I retrieved my running shoes from the porch and, humming contentedly, proceeded to put them on. How odd! My right foot would only fit about halfway in to the shoe before being obstructed by something soft and faintly squishy. Oh, thought I, I must have left a sock balled up in the toe of the shoe. I reached confidently in and emerged with – the fattest, hairiest most disgusting spider I had ever seen, including the New Jersey tarantula.
Fortunately, we had not yet fully unpacked, and there was a large carton of books close at hand. I threw every one of them at my shoe and it’s offending inhabitant, and then retreated to the bedroom. My husband was amused at the pile of books when he returned, laughing at the city girl’s reaction to the little spider as he returned the books to their carton. Laughing, until he got to the bottom. After that, neither one of us left our shoes on the porch. Ever.
A final observation on being an arachnophobic elementary schoolteacher, which I was for over 20 years. Part of it was (obviously) quite true, but part of it became my “schtick.” I became adept at expressing horror at the inevitable spider rings at Halloween, and not wanting to read “Charlotte’s Web” aloud, even though I did, of course, and loved it. I became known throughout the school as Mrs. S, who is scared of spiders, and I played it for all it was worth. It was great fun, although I did strongly discourage my students’ bringing in “Uncle Harry’s pet spider” or the real tarantula that Cousin George has inside a glass paperweight. Over the years I came to notice that my first graders would take great delight in finding the most lifelike and gruesome pictures of spiders and sneaking up with them to scare me, whereas my 5th graders generally went to great pains to protect me from any contact with icky spider pictures. Interesting. I suppose there’s a lesson in that, if only that, thankfully, arachnophobia isn’t contagious. I suspect, though, that arachnophobia can be seared into a person’s genes and thus passed on to one’s unsuspecting offspring. In my case, one son escaped the curse but the other, alas. did not.