About 5 years ago, I paddled with a dragon boat team for the first time. I am not an athlete. I have never been an athlete. In fact, I was often the kid picked last in team sports. I tried out for the swim team once and had to quit because I just couldn't keep up. But I joined a dragon boat team, in part to bond with my fellow teachers, in part to get regular exercise. But a big piece of me decided I should try this new thing because I was scared to do it, because it was WAY outside my comfort zone. It was in another country entirely. The terrified-and-full-of-negative-associations country.
I'm not good at going outside my comfort zone. I don't do well with change. I'm anxious in new social situations. I struggle when things are outside my control. So why, oh why, would I deliberately do this? Because every day in my classroom, I am asking students to do that very thing. I am asking kids who struggle with reading to read and kids who struggle with math to do math and kids who are terrified to speak in public to get up in front of a room of their peers and share what they think. If I am going to ask them to commit these acts of courage, I need to remember what that means and how that feels.
I had a great time at my first dragon boat practice and it's gone on to become a true source of joy and confidence and personal growth. But I'm still absolutely terrified of the competitive part. When we begin getting ready for a race, fear and anxiety grip me in intensely physical ways. My heart races. I have trouble breathing. The moisture leaves my mouth and my muscles turn to jelly.
In that moment, I think of my students. I think of a student I'm worried about. I think of a student who faces that kind of fear when they sit down with a book or they have to take a test. I think of the student for whom getting up and going into the world is an act of courage. Or the student who battles to control anger or wild emotions. Or the one who is miraculously able to giggle and to learn in spite of the worst possible realities awaiting them at home. And I tell myself, if that student can come to school and learn and try and laugh, then I can face this race and put my paddle in the water and keep paddling.
Then, the race becomes a kind of prayer. It's my spirit declaring to that kid's spirit that I believe in their courage and it inspires me. Every stroke of my paddle becomes a reminder that if I will ask my students to brave the country beyond the comfort zone, I must be willing to go there myself. It is a declaration of my faith in determination, perseverance and resiliency.