Early January we tried to take our five year old son skiing. It was a disaster. He refused to grab on to the toe rope grips, meaning I had to accompany him. That sounds fine, but it turned into a real back ache as he went limp, I had to bend down, and the pulling on my arms made them very sore. At the top he refused to try anything and after two runs on the bunny hill, we’d had enough. Dana, our just turned three year old was doing better than Ryan!
I was a bit worried because Ryan was to start Alpine Snow Kids (ASK), a program which teaches Kindergarten to third grade students how to ski. It is run through the university’s soon to be cut ski industries program. I was afraid they’d say Ryan was uncooperative and they couldn’t help him. Well, he’s now had three lessons with ASK, and Sunday I had the pleasure of riding up to the top of Mt. Titcomb with Ryan who skied down the entire hill — a bit too fast, I thought, but in good control. The turn around in his ability is amazing, I was in awe of his ease and comfort on the skis.
From this I draw two conclusions. First, ASK is a remarkably effective program for local children, extremely well designed with excellent, well trained coaches. The University’s plan is to replace ski industries with a new outdoor recreational program that would attempt to serve the regional ski industry as well as develop summer rec programs. That decision has been made. However, I don’t know if it will be possible for them to continue ASK in the new framework, the loss of which would harm both the community and Mt. Titcomb, a small, local ski area perfect for families: a local treasure. I do know I’ll support any effort to try to find a way to keep it going. There’s nothing like seeing first hand the transformation of ones’ own child to appreciate quality teaching, and a quality program design.
The second lesson is a bit more subtle. Watching a child suddenly develop that kind of capacity gets me to think about the barriers we put on ourselves as we age, especially in fearing change. We get comfortable with a certain way of doing things and resist change. Sometimes it’s cute — the elderly couple who still rents a rotary phone from the phone company because they were nervous about buying their own push button phone, the reaction of grandparents to the weird world of their grandkids’ Ipods, or the stodgy professor who discovers the whacko Facebook scene. Humans are, after all, consistency seekers.
That’s true with children too. Try to get a five year old to try a delicious lamb and spinach Indian dish, and you may as well be trying to get him to meet mud and grass for all intents and purposes. And, while the coaches with ASK could help bring about a metamorphosis in Ryan’s approach to skiing, he originally was intimidated by the whole thing.
I was puzzling over that, and it clicked. Control. When I took Ryan to the slope and told him to grab the rope, it was a daunting task. What if he fell? What if he did it wrong? Easier to lean on dad. I noticed the coaches at the ski lessons went step by step. Walk around with the ski boots to get used to them. Put on one ski. Move with that. Ski short distances. Learn the stance. Ski on small inclines…play games to build control. Then go to the toe rope, only by the third two hour lesson. But that groundwork created something real: confidence. Ryan felt in control. He was comfortable with his skis. He could grab the toe rope and if he started to slip, he could adapt. He was in control, he was confident, he was having fun.
All of us like to feel we are in control of what happens each day. When things change at work, people feel off centered, and can be prone to imagine all sorts of possible negative ramifications of changes taking place. Even when some say change will be positive, the lack of control promised by suddenly being in a different world or context creates uncertainty and fear. Even us forty-somethings feel like the kid in skis in front of the intimidating toe rope. No, please, let’s not change!
To be sure, we show it in different ways. In terms of my classes and work, I’m very experimental and change-acceptant. The Administration wants to try a restructuring? Hmm, could be fun to see how that turns out, why not? Want to team teach a course on children and war — cool, let’s try. But in all the trips to Italy, I’m the only faculty member who has resisted trying tripe or squid ink pasta. Even with a colleague like Steve Pane modeling the idea that exploration of cuisine is an integral part of personal growth and learning a culture, I’m more comfortable with my eggplant parmesan or spaghetti carabonara.
The fact is I know I can take changes in work and how I teach and stay in control. It’s not a threat to me. It’s like a skier who sees new runs and is excited because it’s something new, not doubting that he or she can master them. But I don’t want to be at a restaurant suddenly hating a meal in front of me, knowing its not an option to act like a young child and say “yew, I’m not eating that.” As I look at the myriad of areas where I resist change, it ends up being about control, easier to stick with what I know I can master.
In ten days we head to Italy. Will I order tripe in Florence? Maybe not, but this time I’ll at least try someone else’s and build towards it. That’s what I learn from Alpine Snow Kids. We’re all five year olds at heart, daunted by change, liking what we’ve mastered, fearing loss of control. The key is to move slowly, step by step, and develop confidence. The moment confidence overcomes fear, one can go from not wanting to change to actually mastering the mountain — at least with a little practice. That’s a life lesson, and one that, thanks to Alpine Snow Kids, Ryan is internalizing.
I hope that the program is there for Dana when he reaches Kindergarten. The University of Southern Maine, for example, is cutting its lifeline fitness program, which has been a great service to area employers. Universities seem to cut first those things which benefit the community; these often operate at a loss, and are not necessary for the school. Yet such things give students training, provide a service to the community, and enhance the connection of mind and body. Skiing and teaching skiing are not just physical activities, but represent learning how to live, how to develop new skills, and how to cope with change. It would be a real shame if children in the region lose this tremendous program.
I know, compared to all the job loses, program cuts, and economic crises around the globe, it seems pretty tiny. Yet when a parent sees what it does for a child’s growth and development, it suddenly feels damn important!