Heart-in-throat Syndrome: Keeping Kids Safe

A young couple I know have been excited to watch their son begin to walk, and then run, in quick succession. A recent video shows him opening a door for the dog.

In approximately five minutes, he will ask for the keys to the car, and then life will get really interesting.

I remember a group of parents discussing the rapidly increasing maturity of their young adolescent children. One mother, whose medical practice had given her a long and broad view, said, “I don’t really worry about sex or drugs. I worry about cars.” The room filled with nervous, not-yet-believing laughter.

I have to agree with her, though. Four of my past students have already died much too young–one from a drug overdose, but three, including Dana, about whom I’ve written, in accidents involving cars.

Meanwhile, a Touchstone alum just posted on Facebook. One of his college friends was in the group of climbers who died this past week on Mt. Ranier.

So I’m thinking about physical risk-taking, and how we negotiate that between the generations, and within ourselves.

playground reaching with net When I first started teaching, it drove me crazy to supervise kids on the playground at school, or in the active outdoor parts of field trips.

Over time I came to enjoy many aspects of this part of teaching–the chance to watch the bees in the morning glories, the chance to savor the liveliness of the kids in their own buzz of physical and social activity, and the chance to admire physical learning as practiced by many kinds of kids. I learned to stand and watch and name for myself everything good and growing that I saw happening–and that always helped me enjoy it more.

Still, the real job was making sure that everyone operated within carefully rationed acceptable levels of risk–and that became only slightly less challenging in all those years.

I’m a cautious person, physically, and always have been, even as a very small child. Watching other people dashing to and fro, I often have to swallow a certain amount of instinctual alarm, no matter how charming the dashing.

playground sprinkler run croppedMy intuitive response is too protective, and I have to correct for that, consciously, by thinking.

Still, again and again, when we talked about playground risk in staff meeting, we all wound up agreeing that we had to follow our intuitions. I can hear a more experienced and very wise colleague saying, “If something feels wrong, stop it first, and then think it through. Every time we ignore our intuition, something bad happens.”

Can you feel the enhanced conflict there, for me or anyone like me? If your intuition is overprotective, you learn to disregard it, to some extent–and that leaves you vulnerable.

I keep remembering Mikey coming down the snow-slicked slide, about to fracture his wrist as he broke his fall when he reached the ground. It happened so fast. If both time travel and stop motion had been available to me, I’d have been able to go back into that moment: to factor in the extra slipperiness provided by snow, along with the thinness of the snow cover, providing no real protection against the frozen bark chips at the bottom of the slide, nearly as hard as concrete. I might, no matter what, have trusted Mikey’s own astonishing physical intelligence. But Mikey was young, still learning what he needed to know to be safely someone so fast, someone for whom motion was so fluid and so full of joy.

His wrist healed. He was also one of the ones killed in a car accident, years later, on his way to a ski team event, so all my stories about him have a special poignancy. Nobody had done anything reckless; it was just the wrong intersection on the wrong slippery day.

It’s hard for anyone to judge the costs and benefits of physical risk for young children, for young adults like the ski team or the lost climbers, for one’s self. Nobody, no parent, no teacher, no coach, can do that right every time.

Meanwhile, our goal must always be to empower kids, and teach them, to judge risk for themselves. If we decide to close the slide preemptively, whenever it’s fast with snow and there’s no bump-buffer at the bottom, we need to explain why, in a way that shares with kids what we know about practical motion physics.

(My husband routinely threatens to stop traffic and hold a quick class for all the nearby grown-ups, on how the force of a collision increases much faster than an increase in the speed. It varies, in fact, as the square of the speed. I’ve heard the lecture.)

playground kids climbing cropped

A kid at Farm School, learning to climb down. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

On the playground and at the park and in the backyard, just as in the classroom or at the dinner table, we need to teach skills, and give kids time to practice skills: not just the jumping or throwing or climbing skills for a particular game, but also the subtler skill, gained only through practice, involved in thinking while moving. Thinking about what’s slippery and the ways slipperiness can change kinetic action; thinking about where your body will be in another few seconds; thinking about other bodies in motion besides your own.

playground motion at farm school cropped

In the playground of life, as I stand and watch and savor the wonderful blur around me, I wind up seeing and appreciating what I saw in school: we each bring many kinds of mental energy to whatever we do, including paying attention. We bring intuitive energy, that lets us notice things and understand them without even trying, the way Bill Bradley knew where the basketball was in relation to his own position, every moment he spent on the court. We bring analytical energy that lets us think through the math problem of the action at hand in a more systematic way. We are so lucky, as a species, to be able to use reflective energy, to  look at experience and learn from it and then remember.

Meanwhile, each of us is different, with a different way of weaving those energies (and others) together. I’ve known kids–and adults–who could judge and ration physical risk with exquisite accuracy, until the game involved social interaction and negotiation also. I’ve known other adults like me, climbing up a tree in a burst of enthusiasm and then freezing, needing the Jackie Lockney voice to playground Jackie Lockney croppedhelp them solve the step-by-step and hand-hold by hand-hold problems involved in getting back down–and needing to do that both in slow motion and with the help of a pal.

At this point, I believe truly that there’s no shame in living any of those variations, only in not growing within whatever combination of energies you have. I need to listen to people who don’t see physical risk my way, because I have things to learn from them–but the reverse is true also. Every year I last, I can say with more certainty that there’s nobody here but us goofers, and with the best intentions in the world we will all make mistakes, and need the mercy of others’ forgiveness, and our own.

With any luck, parents’ wisdom about all these things grows and deepens, as we help each child become her own person-in-motion-with-an-active-brain. We watch with both sober concern and wild grateful joy.

And when the time comes, sooner than anyone can believe, we take a deep breath, and hand over the car keys.

Deadlines and challenges

Jackie Lockney, amazing Touchstone physical education teacher, advocates something she calls “Challenge by Choice.” She helps students identify the skill–or the level of participation in a game, or the form of safe risk-taking–that they can move into when they’re ready, and she gives them whatever support they need–but they get to choose, kid by kid.

Jackie can talk a kid through a climbing element high in a pine tree, in a way that has felt almost supernatural to me when I’ve observed it. Not many people with Jackie’s personal physical skills can enter the mind of a kid who freezes, physically, unconsoled by the safety harness and line, and unable to talk himself or herself through–the kid who can only take that kind of risk with a copilot.

Out of her sight, without her even knowing, I’ve sometimes borrowed Jackie’s coaching-from-the-ground voice, to help myself get back on my bicycle, or tackle a mess.

Of course, we don’t always get to choose our challenges. People close to me are facing hard things right now, things they chose only in the sense that they agreed to love each other.

As teachers, we can’t always offer our students total flexibility or total choice in the timing of challenges. The deadline of an announced performance date always becomes a kind of emergency, no matter how carefully we plan the preparation. Teachers feel terrible, sometimes, putting kids on the spot by saying weeks ahead of time–the way we must–that a class will share some finished product on a given night.

On the other hand, here’s my image of what can result from that leap of faith–a physical expression of this class’s pride and relief at being done with their individual presentations for the Alhambra Banquet. I wish I could share the sound clip of whooping joy.

Alhambra cheer

Teachers need to take risks outside their teaching, in situations in which they themselves are fully the ones at risk. Especially in the beginning, every time I agreed to read poems publicly I knew the benefit of putting myself in my students’ place. I felt that even more whenever I participated in a class or workshop, and had to follow someone else’s directions, or perform a task with others watching. (In one math workshop in Maine, with the leader standing next to me, I completely lost my memory of how to use a graphing calculator. Gone.)

I took a risk this past month, agreeing to be one of several poets who are writing poems in response to sculptures, for a special online chapbook associated with the exhibit’s website. Here’s the big risk for me: less than two weeks for the writing and revising. What’s so risky? My usual process as a poet involves months, often years, of revision. To produce something on this schedule has been like writing in a completely different genre–as if I’d worked in fabric for decades and suddenly tried to work in clay.

One side-effect: an unusually long gap between blog posts. Nobody is hollering, but I’m worried, for my own sake, that after too long a break I’ll forget how to get back on this horse, too.

On the other hand, I’ve learned some things, launching myself out of my comfort zone this way.

The process of revision that means so much to me, within which I invariably learn and grow, consists of a conversation among various versions of myself, with an odd commitment to democracy and equality among those selves. Facing this deadline, I’ve been figuring out short-cuts for staging that conversation among selves, without waiting for years to go by.

For one thing, I’ve hollered for help, showing drafts of the poem much earlier than I usually would, to family members and to fellow Every Other Thursday poets. They’re not different versions of me, of course, but they trigger different versions, as I respond to their thoughts.

I’ve also pushed hard on something I’ve always known: that I could bring a different mind to a piece of writing, maybe especially a poem, by taking it with me somewhere outside my house. I’ve experienced breakthroughs for these sculpture poems while listening to 50’s and 60’s rock in the vintage McDonald’s on the Massachusetts turnpike; also listening to spring peepers near the Milford bike path; also in a nearby greenhouse tea-shop; also while listening to the sleeping breath of my youngest grandson, staring out at the hemlocks behind his house.

Obviously I’ve had to do some express writing (and express risk-taking) for this blog, too. No, it’s not death-defying, but I know myself better than you do; I’m up a pretty high tree, on this also.

What are these sculptures about which I’m writing? They’re sculptures by Boston area artists, in a show organized by the Energy Necklace Project at the Jackson Homestead in Newton, Massachusetts. They’re stunning. Here’s a detail from one of the pieces about which I’m writing, a fiber piece by Linda Hoffman and Margot Stage, called Forest Fall.

100_0807And here’s another, Reaching Hand, concrete cast from clay by Peter Kronberg:

100_0830If you follow this link, you can see the official photographs for the whole show.  The artists I heard speaking, at the exhibit opening, intrigued me with their descriptions of process, and moved me with their stories.  If we have good weather, the poets will walk from sculpture to sculpture, reading, on June 1st.

And any hour now–really soon–I’ll decide that I’ve done the best I can to live up to the sculptors’ work and courage, and I’ll let go of the poems they inspired. I’m planning to have my surrogate Jackie Lockney voice at hand when I press send.