What were you thinking, mom? They’re so big. Emma Grace said, and then added, “it will be, like, ten years before they fit.”
Although a bit of an exaggeration, she was right. I had done my mom thing on a trip to REI and purchased a pair of flip flops solely because they were on clearance and were crazy cheap (when do you get a pair of shoes at REI for under $20?). I knew they were going to be a little big…but hadn’t really focused on that. $14.99 for name brand flip flops at REI? I grabbed them.
When I showed Emma Grace and she slipped them on, I realized that I’d completely missed the boat: they weren’t just a bit big; they were at least two sizes too big.
“Hmmmm. Oh well, you’ll grow into them…eventually.”
“So—how’s Wolfpack Welcome week going for you?” I asked one of our new students at the college welcome event.
“Great. It’s been really fun.”
“Excited for classes to start?”
“Yeah, kind of. Kind of nervous. I just don’t want to get lost. This is a really big place.”
“What we’d like each of you to do is talk with one person at your table and describe your role at your university. What are your primary responsibilities?”
It was the first of three weekend retreats for the Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) Institute at Wellesley College. Focused on creating and sustain a community of women leaders in higher education, the HERS Institute has facilitated leadership development opportunities for close to forty years. I had applied and been accepted to the Institute shortly after accepting my new job as Associate Dean. I was in the opening session, sitting with a group of six women, when the workshop facilitator put us to work in the opening exercise. I turned and talked with my partner:
“Well, let’s see. I am Associate Dean of Academic Affairs in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at NC State. We are one of 10 colleges at the university and have around 4200 students. We offer over 50 bachelors degrees in 10 departments, and have 15 masters programs and 5 PhD programs. So, my job: I oversee enrollment planning for undergraduate and graduate programs, recruitment and retention of undergraduate and graduate students, assessment of undergraduate and graduate programs, development and planning of new degree programs, processing of course and curricular actions as well as students’ exceptions to university or college academic policies; college-wide implementation and support of high-impact practices… and, um… I’m sure I’m forgetting something….”
I looked at my partner who was staring with me with eyes wide: “That’s a big job.”
“No kidding. That’s why I need HERS.”
Starting something new is significant. And sometimes scary. The first day of school, culturally emblematic of an important milestone (as evidenced by the ritualistic “first day” pictures we often take), is not immune to the fears that accompany a new experience. As a teacher: I might have taught this class before but this group of students is new and I’m afraid it will never go as well as last time. Or, I might be teaching a new class and be concerned about whether the topic will be interesting. Or I might be trying a new teaching method and be worried about whether it will engage students. Or I might be afraid I’m not smart enough, prepared enough, or good enough to do well. As a student: I might be new to the college or university and anxious about how to get around. I might be taking a full load of courses that seem challenging and be concerned about how I will manage my time. Or I might be in a course outside of my comfort zone and be concerned I won’t like it. Or I might be getting close to graduation and be worried about the next steps. Or I might be afraid I’m not smart enough, prepared enough, or good enough to do well.
Regardless the situation: there are few that—if honest—can walk into a first day (of anything) and claim to be unafraid. If fear drives the bus, though, it grows and can lead to paralysis. “I’m afraid” can turn into “I can’t pay attention and learn.” Alternatively, if fear sits in the back of the bus pretending not to be there, it looms large as a quiet distraction. “I’m unafraid” can translate into “I don’t have to pay attention and learn.” Both extremes can slow learning.
Speaking of busses…
“I’m almost home,” Emma Grace texted me.
“Great, how was the first bus ride?” I texted.
Due to some creative scheduling and help from college students, Emma Grace has not—in her elementary or middle school career—had to ride the bus. This year, though, in her last year of middle school, we were unable to work out assistance and so the bus it was. She was not thrilled. We mapped the route online for her so she’d see where she would be going on the map. We drove the route and showed her where her stop would be and told her it would be fine. She still wasn’t thrilled. A new routine is rarely immediately embraced.
She hadn’t responded to my text. I sent another:
“How was the first bus ride?”
“Mom, the bus just left our neighborhood.”
“That’s usually what busses do” I texted back.
“No, I’m still on the bus!”
“The bus driver didn’t stop at my stop.”
“Get off at the next stop”
“She won’t let me off at the next stop if you aren’t here.”
“She has to take me back to school.”
“Ok, I’m on my way.”
[A small aside: For those who are newbie bus moms, here’s the deal: you can’t just look up the bus route on the middle school website and find the bus number and the stop nearest your house and tell your kid to ride the bus and get off at that stop. You have to register your kid with the county school transportation office and then they alert the bus drivers about who will be on the bus and where to stop. I know, I know… I should have known that…. I later told her that I hoped that, if she found herself re-telling this story in therapy one day, she would remember how I immediately fell on my sword and apologized profusely and then tried to make up for it with a shopping trip.]
What followed the brief text exchange was comedic, almost (well now it is, at the time it was anything but comedic). I jumped out of my meeting and ran to the car; pulling up the Find my IPhone account for my daughter and locating where she was. I then proceeded to race across town so I could follow the bus and get one stop ahead of the bus so I could meet the bus and Emma Grace could get out without having to go back to school. I managed to get to the last stop after the bus had stopped there. When I arrived at school and went to the office to pick her up, the very nice woman explained to me where I had mis-stepped in this whole bus-riding endeavor (I think she was shocked I was an 8th grade mom; not a new 6th grade middle school mom) with Emma Grace standing there with a “get me out of here” look on her face.
“I’m never riding the bus again.” she proclaimed, as we walked out of the office. And I could tell her proclamation was not simply a result of teenage annoyance. That things didn’t go as planned really threw her. My confident and prepared teenager was speaking her truth: no more bus rides.
Sometimes the transition into new experiences isn’t smooth. Sometimes the bumps are faults of our own lack of knowledge. Sometimes the bumps are faults of someone else. Sometimes they’re just bumps. A bumpy start doesn’t feel great. It can make even the most confident and prepared feel vulnerable and afraid. Getting asked a question that you don’t know the answer to can feel uncomfortable. Having something unexpected happen in your classroom that you didn’t plan for can cause stress. Participating in a discussion on a topic where you don’t have any background or experience can lead to feeling incompetent. Getting a list of complicated assignments or tasks or activities that need to be completed can feel overwhelming. Watching students respond in ways you weren’t hoping for (e.g, being unprepared or apathetic) can be demoralizing.
In short: when the script changes and the driver doesn’t stop at the expected stop, it is easy to feel off kilter and a little lost. So: what to do? Because the script will change. And the driver at some point will drive right past the stop. So: what to do?
There’s something to be said about persistence. And resilience. And perspective. And trust.
bell hooks states:
I entered the classroom with the conviction that it was crucial for me and every other student to be an active participant, not a passive consumer…[a conception of] education as the practice of freedom… education that connects the will to know with the will to become. Learning is a place where paradise can be created.
-bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress
Being an active participant–after bumps–can be a vulnerable act. And as Brené Brown suggests: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” (Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transfers the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead)
“I can’t believe it! Look how small I am!”
We were watching videos of Emma Grace’s first rock climbing season three years ago. Wandering through videos of different problems at various gyms, we landed on one particular gym that we had just been to recently.
“Wow. I really did my hair that way?” Emma Grace commented, “And why did I make that move? Come on Emma Grace, you now know better.”
“Do you remember the problems at that comp?” I asked.
“Yeah. I was so psyched to get on the wall. And I remember thinking the gym was so big. Kinda funny cause it really isn’t. I just thought it was.”
You thought you needed HERS. You were right and wrong. You didn’t need HERS to learn to do this job. You needed HERS to learn you didn’t need HERS. It’s a big job. And you have everything you need. Remember that.
Shortly after the final HERS retreat, I received the handwritten letter in the mail: written by me, to me at the end of the first retreat 9 months earlier.
The will to become.
“I’m on the bus.” The text popped up on my phone.
“Text when you get home,” I wrote.
“IF I get home,” the message said.
“I MADE IT OUT!” the next text said.
“Great! How was the bus ride?” I texted back.
“Boring. It’s a bus ride mom. It’s not fun. But I did it. After that disaster, I did it.”
Sounds like truth and feels like courage to me.
There’s something to be said about persistence.
…About learning and its potential.
“Look what I found? Remember when I bought these last year? Maybe you’ll finally fit into them. Here, try them on.” I tossed the flip flops to Emma Grace and went about cleaning out my closet.
“Uh…. Mom….” I turned around and looked at her feet. The shoes were way too small. She had grown out of them.
“I guess we need to find some that are bigger.”
The first day: It’s a big place. A big job.
You have everything you need. Especially when the bus doesn’t stop where you expect.
And before you know it: you’ll grow out of it.
And then… there will be something bigger.