Earlier in the week, we had sleet and freezing rain; falling temperatures in the early hours of the day created patches of ice on the roads and walks. Driving to school that morning, I saw a small figure straddling the sidewalk a block ahead of me: a very tiny woman, I thought, trying to walk on the ice. Her arms were extended parallel to the sidewalk, and they jerked alternately up and down, in the way of someone trying to maintain balance. She wasn’t making much progress.
But as I drew closer, I realized that the little old woman I was seeing from behind was actually a very young girl. Her pink cotton scarf was tied babushka fashion, and her snow jacket was too big. She wore a skirt that peeked out from under the jacket and hardly covered her knees. Heavy black boots with thick rubber soles accentuated her thin legs. It was those rubber soles that were causing her to slip and slide.
She didn’t seem to be unnerved by the ice, although she was definitely scrambling—rapidly shifting her weight from leg to leg, stepping forward and sliding back and never gaining ground. She couldn’t make headway—or maybe she wasn’t trying. It seemed to me, the longer I watched from the car, that her repetitive motions were experimental, not frantic at all. Something in her attitude conveyed the impression that she was practicing at moments of unsteadiness, even finding pleasure in mastering the near-falls, the sudden shifts, and the involuntary responses of her body trying to right itself. She was learning to walk on ice.
She looked up and ahead then, and my eyes followed an invisible line between the child and her parents—the mother with a bundled baby in her arms—who were waiting ahead at the corner. They had turned around to watch their performer on the ice, so I could see that they were calling to her, but they were laughing and enjoying their child’s experiment with balance. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry. They weren’t nagging or impatient in their stance. I slowed to a crawl so I could continue to watch the little girl. When I finally reached the corner, a four-way stop, I sought the mother’s eyes. We both grinned.
It was the image of the child that arrested my own forward motion that morning, but it is the picture of the parents at the other end of the line that has stayed with me ever since. Often enough in life we encounter unexpected patches of ice, dangerous slicks that unbalance us—or threaten to—and send us sprawling to the ground. A little practice with uncertainty and an occasional encounter with struggle serve children well. They need to have had some practice with adversity in order to keep their footing later in life should the ground below them turn treacherous.
It is a balancing act for parents, too, no matter how old or young their children are, a trick to know when to prevent experience, when to permit experiment, and when to intervene. I remember my own children’s struggles as they grew in independence. The first night away from home brought on a wave of homesickness for one of them. She survived the night, however, and learned something of self-reliance. In junior high school, a skiing trip with a group of friends sounded exciting—but she had had no experience on the slopes. She went on the trip, and she learned to ski: Her self-confidence soared. A few years later, a camping expedition with her friends meant she’d climb Long’s Peak in Colorado. I would not be there to hold her hand—or my breath. But she went, and I cherish a photograph someone took of her: my daughter, standing victorious at the top.
There was adventure in all of these experiences—and the potential for danger. To stand at a distance as one’s child—or one’s student—takes a run at the ice means holding the instinct for rescue in check in order to send a more important message. That invisible line between a watchful parent and an eager child vibrates with a message of faith, of belief in the child’s ability to succeed. The message these parents were sending to their daughter this morning as she walked along on the ice will prepare her to approach life with confidence, to engage in its struggles with spirit, to feel pride when she reaches solid ground, and to move forward always, embracing the world before her.
There’s a lesson in this balancing act—for the parents of our students and for us, the teachers at the front of the room. Instinct screams at us to protect our children and to make learning easy for our students. It is important to keep a watchful eye, but we can’t–and shouldn’t–prevent the learning that comes from an occasional fall. Our children will move with confidence when they know how to walk on ice.