So. In case you haven’t heard… I work with 5th & 6th graders in the Redwood forest at an outdoor education center and it’s kind of the best. I do lots of facilitating, leading, guiding, and teaching. But little did I realize how much they would do the teaching and I would do the learning. These kids are teaching me how to be kind, patient, and bold.
Take Eric for example, A.K.A. the cutest little boy I’ve ever seen. A little bit of pudge. A little more bit cross-eyed. And the sweetest, most innocent smile in the whole wide world. Oh, and the most beautiful brown skin straight out of Mexico.
I loved that kid… wish he was still around. But here’s the thing, Eric was terrified of anything more than 10 feet up in the air. He refused to climb the trees or do any of the ziplines or swings. And I mean, RE-FUSED. I was lucky if the boy even put a harness on.
So there I was, up in the tree sending kid after kid off all kinds of exciting “rides” as they like to call it, my ears practically bleeding from all the spontaneous screams and uncontrollable laughter as each wild eyed participant took their first step or “scoot” off the wooden platform.
Then almost out of habit, I would find my eyes back on Eric, his eyes larger than ever, just gleaming at each participant with such an innocent, child-like hope and determination. I just knew he wanted to fly and wave from the sky like all the other kids. Or did he? Didn’t every kid want that?
You know, there were actually a few times where Eric would come close to maybe, possibly, potentially, in an hour’s time… attempt to climb, zip or swing from the trees. And each time I would get so excited. In fact, on his last full day of camp, I was certain it was going to happen.
WHAT?!! Eric has a harness on!
He’s moving toward the stairs!
Eyes locked on his.
After only one step up, Eric casually yet intently looked back at his even more terrified friend, Christian, the only other kid who had not yet attempted the the zipline. Desperate for an Ok, a nod, maybe just maybe, some sort of approval from his loyal comrade. But Nothing. Just the same familiar fear staring back.
Still Eric moves forward, terrified and full of doubt.
We tried everything. Eric’s father-like figure chaperone, David, stepped in and together we were ready to Conquer. We had Eric close his eyes and dream about his puppy. I explained our equipment set up and our inspection process… told him those carabineers can hold the weight of a baby elephant. We even had him repeat after us,
I know I can do this. (I know I can… do…this.)
This is not scary. (This… is not… scary.)
It’s going to be super fun. (It’s going to be super…. fun.)
Then tears. Lots of tears. We’re talking major waterfall.
Quick sidenote: I’m beginning to become pretty comfortable with kids crying next to me up in the trees these days. Shoot, I almost expect it. And then there’s the uncontrollable shaking. And the petrified, toddler-like screaming. Oh and let’s not forget, the mere shock on the kids’ faces as they look down for the first time and practically swallow the entirety of the height at which they are going to fall from. Although I never use the F word with kids… at least not that F word.
"Not fall, Rebecca.
FLY. You are going to FLY."
Anyway, back to Eric. Here we are, desperately trying every possible technique in the whole wide world of Challenge Course Counseling. At one point, we even picked him up on both sides of his harness so he could feel the support of the cable.
But after about 10-15 minutes of doing everything but pushing this kid off the dang platform, he looks us both in the eye and says without a stutter,
I can’t do it.
Hands officially and forever out of the handholds.
Head shaking profusely.
And without another word, we both know there’s no way he’s letting down this time. Eric’s done.
After catching his breath and wiping the remainder of his tears on his sleeve, he and Christian walk down to the field and wait in silence for David to walk them back to their cabin. All the other kids had left at this point. Free time had begun and they were tired of waiting on Eric to make a decision.
“Well, we tried. That’s too bad. These kids sure are missing out,” Military Man David says to me in a rather depressing tone. Then he turns around to go back down the stairs, ready to give the boys a Growing Up Talk on their walk back to camp.
But you know, as I think back to that day at the zipline, I begin to realize something: Maybe Eric has more courage than any of us. Maybe he is the bravest one of all.
Eric said No.
A ten year old. A mere ten year old. Still afraid of girls. Still learning how to hike without tripping over every possible root in the forest.
He said No.
How often I say Yes because people expect me to. How often I...
All because I’m supposed to or because everyone else is doing it. Or because I don’t even know there’s another option. How often I stand at the edge of the platform internally terrified and more than overwhelmed, trying to calm myself down but failing miserably as my breathing soon evolves into disappointing attempts at inhalation, forgetting for the life of me how to exhale.
If only I knew I had a choice.
The choice to say No.
To step back.
And walk away.
There’s always a choice.