When 10-year-olds have the answers

A chorus of little voices greets me enthusiastically as I shove my backpack into a cubby at the crowded climbing gym on a windy Friday afternoon.

“Emma!” one kid bounds up to me, “High-five!” At the last second, she pulls her hand away with a grin, exposing the same giant braces I had at her age. “Too slow,” she smirks. It’s fine. I’ll get her back later.

Soon, we’re gathered in a big circle, surrounded by springy gym mats and colorful climbing holds. We play a quick game of Human Knot, one of my favorite icebreakers, which ends with a pile of giggling girls on the floor.

I’m here as part of Girls Lead For Life, a Women’s Wilderness Institute after-school program that aims to teach girls climbing and life skills, with 15 ten- and eleven-year-olds, two instructors, and a handful of other adult volunteers like me. This is our second six-week session—in the first, we covered figure-eight knots and top-rope belaying—and we’re getting ready to teach the girls how to lead climb and belay.

Whenever I’m in a position to teach someone else about climbing, I find myself thinking back to my own early climbing experiences. Where would I be if I hadn’t found climbing?

Doing things outside has shaped my life. It’s how I met my spouse and most of my friends, why I’ve lived in and traveled to beautiful places, what I’ve done for work. But most importantly, it’s how I’ve gotten to know myself. I went from being an untethered twenty-one-year-old to a confident do-er of things that scared me, thanks in large part to the efficacy I gained by climbing and skiing and hiking around with a backpack. After nearly a decade of working outside, I can scarcely imagine what my life would look like if I’d never learned to tie a figure-eight.

Still, I am not immune to that untethered feeling. When things in my life feel adrift, as they do now, even a long run or sweaty session at the rock gym doesn’t necessarily provide the answers.

In times like this, funnily enough, it’s things like the Girls Lead For Life program that ground and center me. Teaching others the skills that have become second nature to me is much like figuring out just what it is I’m supposed to be doing with my days. (It doesn’t hurt, also, that being around a bunch of silly kids reminds me why I fell in love with climbing in the first place. It’s fun!)

In life, as in teaching ten-year-olds to climb, there are certain ingredients that work best. But at some point, you have to take a step back and attend to other things, letting it all marinate and crossing your fingers that things work out. I tell myself this when I let a kid belay me, and I remind myself of it when I wonder if I can afford to write for a living or where I’d like to live.

With that, I snap out of my reverie to check that everyone’s harnesses are double-backed.

“Your harness looks just right,” I tell my pal with a smile, “High-five!” I almost pull my hand away at the last second to tease her, but decide against it. A high-five feels pretty good.

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