I was an awkward child: born with a pseudo-club foot [my left leg was shorter than my right and my left foot turned outward], I lacked balance and agility. My pediatrician recommended years of modern dance as physical therapy, combined with special custom inserts in my shoes called Cookies [like today’s Orthotics] as a better alternative to the disfiguring and often unsuccessful surgery then used as treatment. So I was lucky. Fearful on land, I was fearless in water, and swimming became my refuge. But I never saw myself as athletic.
My parents loved me, but their efforts to support me were sometimes misguided. They nicknamed me “Cookie” after my inserts, reinforcing my sense of inadequacy. When others were learning to ride a bike, they borrowed one that was far too large, dooming my cautious efforts. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 27 years old, but 17 years later I rode 500 miles across Iowa on RAGBRAI [Register Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa] with my husband and 10,000 other riders. Later that year I did the bicycling part of a biathlon and a friend did the running, and we won our age group!
What made the difference? A teacher/coach who believed in me and created small incremental steps that paved the path to success… My husband grew up riding bikes and considered bicycling with our toddler boys on kids’ seats an obvious family activity. He refused to allow my conviction that I couldn’t ride a bike to interfere. He borrowed my friend Gloria’s bike, got her to watch the boys, and took me to a deserted parking lot. Cajoling and encouraging me, he persuaded me to try pedaling while he held on, only letting go when I wasn’t looking. He was, of course, right: I could ride a bike. We bought a bike for me and seats for our sons, pedaling all over the neighborhood.
His confidence in me led to be more adventurous, to have more faith in myself. We took our sons to a dude ranch in Colorado in 1981, 19 years after I’d given up riding because of a bad accident. I rode again and regained my comfort on a horse. I got my family into whitewater rafting on that trip, and four years later we paddled a raft through big rapids, including Crystal and Lava, in the Grand Canyon. I was the only member of my family to tube a big rapid in the Canyon, too. And I joined a women’s soccer league in the early 80s. Always afraid of heights, I nevertheless parasailed in Nice in 1986. We raced a canoe for ten years, and I paddled an inflatable kayak through big rapids on the Salmon River in 1991. We’ve been kayaking since 1995 and now travel internationally to kayak. I’ve ziplined in Mexico and kayak-sailed in Belize.
Why share all this information here? None of those endeavors would have occurred without the support and coaching of my intrepid husband. He taught me to believe in myself and my ability to tackle athletic endeavors. And the adventures continue. We just returned from the Great River Rumble, a 95-mile kayaking trip on the Root and Mississippi Rivers with over 200 other paddlers. This was the first long trip I’d done in a single. Although I’d been the one to suggest this trip, nerves stole my sleep for weeks before left. I feared its rigor and challenges. We did meet challenges: very technical paddling the first day, two days of searing heat, a monsoon, and a tail wind with gusts up to 24 miles per hour that flipped some boats. But I did it. And I enjoyed it. And I felt proud of myself for this accomplishment.
My husband/coach/biggest supporter made that possible. He encouraged me every time I chose to take a risk, supported me when I needed help, and celebrated every success.
Isn’t that what a good teacher does? Teachers help students succeed by breaking seemingly insurmountable tasks down into baby steps. They support students so they can succeed and move to the next step. And when students encounter a temporary setback or failure, they remind them of their past successes to enable future success. I often told students, “There’s nothing here that you can’t do,” so often that they sometimes finished the sentence for me. But I always meant it, because I was confident that I wasn’t asking more of them than they could manage. I would ask more and more, but only in incremental steps.
I had teachers like that in my own schooling. They taught me that the limits I felt were usually self-imposed. They helped me break those “limits” by breaking down the challenges I was facing into doable segments. Every learner deserves that kind of challenge and that kind of support. I am so grateful to have had such challenges and support in both my academic and my personal lives!