I hold my breath


When I have a few minutes to thoughfully re-read my reflective writing, I sometimes realize that I’m glossing over the rough bits. I’m pretending, for the sake of efficacy or clarity or sanity, that I don’t have moments of doubt, of persistent low-level panic that keep me up at night. So, let me come clean… I do.

When I was an undergraduate dance major, we used to have to show our choreographic works-in-progress every week and open ourselves up to feedback from the faculty and other students. What was nerve wracking at first became routine after a few weeks. We got accustomed to taking what made sense to us and leaving the rest of the feedback behind. We stopped taking it personally; we learned that, while we were invested in our work, our work was not ourselves.

One of my choreography teachers had a great metaphor at the time about a bird who lives on your shoulder and who, like the pirate’s parrot who relentlessly demands a cracker, nags at you, criticizing your efforts and feeding your anxiety. She told us to silence our birds, to push them aside, as it was their nagging that was the biggest impediment to our creative process, the deepest pothole on our choreographic paths. If we listened to our birds we would never make anything new, we’d just find ourselves repeating comfortable motifs and patterns. The problem wasn’t other people’s feedback – it was our own. Sound familiar?

I don’t spend as much time choreographing as I used to; teaching has become my primary creative outlet, my improvisational practice, and the new place where my bird lives. He pops out whenever I take a risk; he’s often around.

Yesterday, I took a small group of kids to the greenspace on the side of our school property. They love to go there and they start asking about it the instant my feet hit the asphalt. It’s a typical bush area in this part of the world, lots of poplar and birch, some cedar and pine, and lots of black rocks. Our rocks are unique around here. Decades of logging and mining deforested the entire area and, although we’ve undertaken the world’s largest re-greening project, there are still plenty of bare rock ridges to explore. Kids love nothing better than to climb them, run along them, and slide down them on their bums. They also love to run down the slopes, delighting in the slightly out-of-control feeling of their legs pistoning underneath them before they slow themselves down. The ground is still wet underneath and there are several wetland patches between the ridges. It’s a great place to learn about nature (yesterday the buds on the trees were just beginning to open) and environmental stewardship. While we were there, one of my little girls said: “Madame, I know what we can be when we grow up: scientists. Because we explore lots of things.” The laughter bubbles out of them as they chase each other across the rocks. It’s delightful.

There is joy, there is resiliency, there is challenge, and there is learning.

Kids fall down and they learn that they are capable of picking themselves up.

There is also risk.

Every day as I watch them play with sticks, jump over puddles, chase each other across the rocks, and walk on the ice, I hold my breath. I worry about them falling in, falling down, or losing control. I worry about angry parents, angry administrators, and the looming lawsuits. I worry about the media and I worry about my job. I’ve been taking children on outdoor adventures for 14 years and I haven’t stopped worrying.

But I still take them. I think it’s a risk worth taking. I think that while there is risk in experiential outdoor learning, that the risk of not doing it is far greater. I think we risk having kids that tune out, disengage, and develop minds and bodies that are equally out of shape. So, while I find the bird on my shoulder annoying and I wish he’d go away, I don’t let him stop me. I want my students to learn that it’s important to push beyond their comfort zones, to take risks, and to wander the road-less-traveled. I hope that they create the choreography of their lives without repeating motifs and patterns; I hope they follow their own paths. There are lessons learned outdoors while messing about that can’t be learned anywhere else. So for now I’ll keep holding my breath and I’ll work on learning to exhale.

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