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April 10, 2015
By Mark Hornickel • Photography by Darren Whitley
Allison Edwards '98 knows anxiety.
Like many people, she's lived a life filled with emotional bumps, bruises and life-altering moments. It started with the time at age 4 when a "surge of anxiety" prompted her to wake her mom in the middle of the night because she equated her upcoming kindergarten shots to receiving an epidural and was terrified of having a baby.
That was Edwards' nature as a child: To have a thought and rehash it and twist it until it burst with a surge. She worried about the end of the world, money, college and her career.
"I was a kid who worried, and I remember much of my childhood being afraid of things, and my mind was always going," Edwards said. "I never knew what to do about it except deal with it and get through it."
Now, as an adult, she is more equipped to handle her anxiety. Experiences throughout her life led to Edwards establishing herself as a licensed professional counselor in Nashville, Tenn., and in 2006, after years of working as a school counselor in the Nashville public school system, Edwards opened a private practice that specializes in working with children ages 4 through adolescence and their families.
A registered play therapist, she also teaches graduate-level counseling courses as an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University and writes about childhood anxiety. In 2013, Edwards authored "Why Smart Kids Worry and What Parents Can Do to Help."
If it hadn't been for Northwest, though, Edwards might have traveled a much different path.
* * *
On a Friday afternoon at a Nashville gym, Edwards is filling time by playing basketball before heading to the Vanderbilt campus for an evening of teaching. She's maybe never more at ease than when she has a basketball in her hands, and she's draining jump shot after jump shot. From an early age, all she wanted to do was play basketball.
Edwards grew up in St. James, Mo., a small town about 90 miles southwest of St. Louis where the high school basketball games drew such large crowds that the noise sometimes forced scorekeepers to substitute starter guns for the traditional buzzer. The sport caught Edwards' interest while she attended games with her father, and by age 11 she was dreaming of playing at the University of Connecticut. If she worked hard enough, she thought, she could play professionally.
"It was one of those things where you could play it anywhere," Edwards said. "You could go outside and you didn't need anyone to play with you. There's a hoop, a ball, it was a gravel driveway. That was all I needed."
She proved herself as a 5-foot, 7-inch shooting guard at St. James High School, where she was twice named the team's most valuable player and was a four-time all-conference and all-district performer. Her teams were 91-19 during her career, winning three conference and district championships.
UConn didn't recruit her to play college ball, but the University of Alabama-Huntsville did. There, Edwards led the team in scoring and had the best season of her career as a sophomore, when she started all 26 games as a team captain and averaged 13.6 points per game on her way to all-conference honors.
The transition from high school to college, however, with two-a-day practices beginning at 6 a.m., was tougher than Edwards had anticipated. Her mother – though she survived – was battling breast cancer, and Edwards resigned her position on the team after her sophomore year to be closer to home.
With the help of a family friend, she transferred to Northwest to begin the 1996-1997 season and her Bearcat career began with promise. In an early-season exhibition win, she scored 16 points, including two three-pointers.
"She came out with her guns loaded," the late head coach Wayne Winstead told The Northwest Missourian after the game. "She showed a lot of composure and flowed to the spots. She didn't take any bad shots."
Michael Smith '98, Northwest's current women's basketball head coach, was in his first year as a graduate assistant under Winstead and remembers Edwards not only for her tremendous shooting ability but for her positive attitude.
"The thing that first comes to mind when I think of Allison is her smile. That kid was always smiling when she came in the gym," Smith said. "As a player, she could shoot it. Once her feet were set as she crossed the half court line she was in range. She was what us coaches call a zone buster."
Edwards had started the Bearcats' first six games when the team hit the road for Texas, but her basketball dreams took a dramatic turn not even a month into the season. A stomach virus sidelined Edwards, and her replacement in the starting lineup played well enough that it rattled her confidence.
Suddenly, for the first time in her playing career, Edwards was left watching the game from the bench. She was lost.
"I didn't know what to do with that," she said. "You look back on your life and you're like, 'This is why this happened,' but at the time I was devastated. I sat on the bench, and I thought, 'I need to figure out what I want to do. This is ending.'"
Growing up, academics were secondary to basketball for Edwards and school bored her. In grade school, she completed her homework on time and made the honor rolls by making the most of her study hall time. But Edwards also was the social student who was sent home with notes from teachers about talking too much during class.
"I talked to everybody so they kept moving me, but there wasn't anywhere to put me because I would talk to everybody," Edwards said. "I talked a lot, I socialized a lot. I liked that part of school but the academics – three or four hours of homework a night – I did not participate in that."
At Huntsville, she got by taking courses like fencing, scuba diving, ballroom dancing, tennis and "everything that had to do with nothing," she said. "I played basketball so I didn't really focus on school."
* * *
When Edwards arrived at Northwest, she faced the reality that she needed to pick a major and get serious about her academics. During an orientation session, she found herself surrounded by tables manned with faculty members – each representing a field of study.
"I'm spinning around the room and I'm walking from table to table," Edwards recalled. "It's this pivotal moment in life and my mom's like, 'Honey, you knew this was coming. You need to declare a major.'"
Desperate and somewhat comically, Edwards approached a table for prospective Spanish majors. The faculty representative spoke in Spanish and Edwards didn't understand a word but made a futile attempt to sway the instructor that she could be a Spanish major.
That's when Edwards met Dr. Betty Bush, who the Spanish faculty member summoned to talk further with Edwards. At Huntsville, a classmate suggested that Edwards become a counselor, and the brief conversation had stuck with her. But because the state of Missouri required school counselors to have teaching experience at that time, Bush suggested Edwards become an elementary education major as a pathway to being a counselor.
"Our conversation was probably 15 minutes, but it was memorable," Edwards said. "I have no idea where I would be if that Spanish woman would have said, 'OK, sign up,' or didn't go get Betty Bush, who told me how I needed to get there."
Edwards eventually regained her confidence on the basketball court and became a key player off Wayne Winstead's bench. She scored double digits in a handful of games – including totals of 15 and 16 on back-to-back nights to open the 1997-1998 season – and capped her basketball career as a senior at Northwest.
Edwards' new role in basketball, however, helped her find affirmation in her decision to study elementary education, and she discovered her passion for working with children.
"Once it started, it was very clear," she said. "I never thought about doing something else."
She became involved in Northwest's education program and the Horace Mann Laboratory School, receiving much-needed support from her instructors. Observing former Horace Mann instructors like the late Joann Stamm Marion and Lynnette Tappmeyer also offered valuable lessons.
Mrs. Tappmeyer – who taught at Horace Mann from 1990 to 2009 and is the wife of former head men's basketball coach Steve Tappmeyer – was tough, Edwards recalled, but her teaching style motivated the aspiring counselor much like her basketball coaches.
"The athletes and students that thrive have similar characteristics: strong work ethic, humbleness, and a willingness to grow and improve," Tappmeyer said. "They are able to handle constructive feedback and expect it. Allison exhibited all of these characteristics."
Tappmeyer remembers Edwards as a natural leader and for the energy she brought to the classroom – characteristics that Dr. Jean Bouas saw in her, too. Edwards vividly recalls the day she was called into Bouas' office to watch a video of her interacting with Horace Mann students.
"You're a natural," Bouas, who taught at Northwest between 1992 and 2003, told her. Edwards was dumbfounded as Bouas pointed to her actions on the video.
"I thought it was the craziest thing I had ever heard, and I was like, 'I'm a natural at this?'" Edwards said. "I'll never forget her saying that. No one had ever said that about anything I've done. I wasn't a natural athlete, I was a hard worker. Now counseling is a natural thing for me, but it started with that."
Edwards completed her student teaching in St. James during the fall of 1998 and graduated from Northwest that December. Northwest, she says, helped her develop the confidence to do something other than play basketball and the clarity to work toward something more. "I grew up at Northwest. I became an adult."
* * *
Edwards' next move took her to Phoenix, where she joined a friend to work with at-risk teenagers at a halfway house. Six months later, in the fall of 1999, she was accepted to enroll at Vanderbilt University and resumed work toward her goal of becoming a school counselor.
In 2001, she completed her master's degree at Vanderbilt and received the Roger Aubrey "Northstar" Award given to a student who demonstrates the greatest potential for human development through counseling.
"Grad school was this whole new way of thinking about people and myself, and it was a real experience," Edwards said. "I was like a sponge. … I wanted to know everything, and it was the first time I sat in school and was doing it because I was passionate about it."
Today, that troublesome tendency Edwards had in grade school to talk to anyone is an asset in her career.
Edwards has built her private practice through word-of-mouth referrals, with families connected to Nashville's booming music industry and children attending the city's highest-achieving schools comprising a solid portion of her client base. She also maintains a close relationship with Nashville schools and has become a go-to therapist when others can't seem to discern a child's issue.
Her patients run the gamut of issues that trouble children and youth, from bullying and sexuality to dealing with abuse and divorce.
"I have more tolerance for a lot of stuff," Edwards said. "You never know why somebody's coming to see you, and usually you're not going to find out until you're way in and then they're like, 'I need to tell you this.' My reaction always has to be one of acceptance or they're going to run out and feel terrible."
But Edwards also has a knack for making children feel comfortable and safe. Her private practice resides in a converted house she shares with several other independent therapists, and her ground floor office is full of counseling tools disguised as toys and treasures that have proven useful in helping children discuss their feelings with her.
She began incorporating Play-Doh into her therapy after realizing how quickly she could connect with children by playing with it together. Now a window sill in her office is a display case for dozens of her patients' creations. Edwards even requires her graduate students to bring a jar of Play-Doh with them to class.
Of course, there's a basketball hoop on the back of her door. A small sandbox is a popular attraction, too, where children bury figurines and small toys for others to find.
They are conversation starters that help her young patients "connect the dots" to their fears and anxiety triggers.
"'Well, why is that kid here?'" Edwards starts, mimicking a child. "'That kid's here because his mom and dad got a divorce just like yours.' 'Oh, really?'" And the dialogue begins.
While Edwards has developed many of her techniques through interactions with her patients, children began teaching her about their anxious tendencies as early as her days of observing them in Horace Mann's classrooms.
"In class I would notice kids, and they were nervous and they were anxious," Edwards said. "I was far more interested in that than I was in their academic performance."
As she became engrained in the Nashville community and spent more time working with children, Edwards began making correlations with her own childhood.
"I started thinking, 'Wow, all these kids are anxious and they're all worrying about the same things. They were worrying about death, getting to college, natural disasters and they were about 5 and 6 years old. And I couldn't figure out why I was seeing this."
So Edwards paired her observations with her childhood experiences of dealing with fear and anxiety into her parent-friendly handbook, "Why Smart Kids Worry and What Parents Can Do to Help." In it, Edwards offers 15 practical tools to empower children to navigate situations that trigger anxiety. The book is filled with useful tips to help adults deal with anxiety, too.
"A lot of books talk about getting rid of anxiety or freeing kids of anxiety, and my take is that for a lot of people, myself included, anxiety is just something that's part of a personality and something that is going to be there," Edwards said. "I don't think that we need to be fixed as people but take more of an approach to work with what we have."
Edwards hopes her book helps parents gain a clearer understanding of their children's fears and how to help them work through those struggles.
"I wrote the book because I wish my mom could have read it," Edwards said. "I think she would have said, 'Oh, whoa, this is why this is happening.' I'm not the only kid who was worried about having a baby during childhood, but my mom thought I was."
* * *
Now it's Friday night in a Vanderbilt classroom and Edwards is sharing some of her school counseling and private practice experiences with a room of graduate students who are school counselors in training. The natural teaching abilities faculty saw in her at Northwest are evident as she interacts with her students, presents casework, discusses anxiety and leads a role-playing exercise to illustrate brain functions in relation to emotions and decision-making.
Edwards accepted the invitation – one she nearly turned down out of fear – to teach at Vanderbilt in 2009. With each passing year she grows more comfortable in the classroom and takes pride in lending real and practical experiences to students.
If Edwards wasn't going to have a career playing basketball, her teammates figured she was destined for a coaching career in the game. But circumstances change, and Edwards remains grateful for the role Northwest had in helping her develop her skills in another field of play.
"Sometimes you just need someone to be the warm person to say," Edwards says, recalling the words of Betty Bush, 'Hey, try this out.'"
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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