What My Daughter Taught Me This Weekend about Courage… and Education

“This is going to be on the blog, isn’t it?”

This post is about to prove my friend Will right. But honestly, as we stood in front of the climbing wall at Covenant Pines Bible Camp this past Saturday afternoon, all I could think was, “I can’t believe Lena wants to go up that thing!”

My daughter is six years and not quite five months old. (I was about to write six and a half, but when someone said that earlier in the day, she had corrected them. So I’ll strive to be precise.) And Lena is generally much more cautious than her twin brother, who had spent a fair amount of our church’s family camp weekend up north playing games with the bigger kids.

Just minutes before we got to the climbing wall, neither of my children had shown the slightest interest in trying the camp’s other thrill-seeker activity, which works like this:

So when we ambled over to check out the climbing wall, I felt pretty sure that neither of them would want to strap on a harness. I’m terrible at estimating these things,  but it seemed like it was at least 30 feet high — and that was just to give you the chance to climb a pole to a perch where a staff member waited to hook you to a long zip-line that stretched off into the forest.

You could triple my salary and still not convince me to do either the climbing wall or the zip-line. The only thing that scares me more than heights is hurtling along at fast speeds.

But as those thoughts ricocheted through my mind, Lena tapped me on the leg, half-smiled, and said, “I think I want to do that.”

Ever since we’d arrived at Covenant Pines, she had been having fun riding a much lower zip-line over at the camp playground, but I could tell that the height was making her nervous. “Are you sure, honey?” She gulped and looked like she was rethinking the idea, but after watching a couple of friends do it successfully, she nodded more firmly and went over to get suited up.

Finally, it was her turn. Lena stretched her already-long arms and legs into impossible configurations and clambered up the wall. Without so much as a pause to catch her breath, she climbed the ladder to the start of the zip-line.

And stopped.

The counselor up there gently tried to talk her into finishing the activity, but Lena was obviously terrified and wouldn’t go any further. So down she went.

Sobbing and shaking, she fell into my arms. I tried to reassure her, but finally I just had to carry her away.

But as we found Isaiah and started to head back to our room to get ready for supper, Lena collected herself. She turned her head into my ear and whispered, softly but firmly: “I want to try it again.”

I know this sounds ridiculous, but…

It felt like a moment in a Best Picture nominee. Violins swelling, camera cutting back and forth between close-ups of our faces: mine confused, then concerned; hers determined, never more serious…

“I mean it, Dad. I want to try again.”

I didn’t understand it the first time, and even less the second. But even I could tell that this was an important moment in her young life. So I set her down and walked her back towards the zip-line, holding her hand more for my sake than hers.

And back into the harness and up the climbing wall she went. She got to the top and… Well, I’ll shut up and let the moment speak for itself.

Even writing this, I can’t quite believe that she did it. No matter what else happens, I have a feeling this moment will remain one of the top three in my life as a parent. (To fully understand the power of this moment, let me suggest you pause and read the last post focused on Lena and Isaiah — about the fear I felt putting them on the school bus for their first day of kindergarten, eight months ago.)

I can’t stop telling people about what happened. Some of you have already heard me tell the story in person, or seen the video and pictures on Facebook. I’m sure I’ll trot out the story at Lena’s wedding.

But I repeat it here because — as Will predicted, without quite knowing just what would come of Lena reaching for that harness — it did get me thinking about one of the themes of this blog: education.

First, it reminded me that, for some of my students, my class is the thirty-foot climbing wall that ends with them hurtling down a zip-line. To think critically about their own assumptions, to question their own beliefs, or to see the world through the eyes of someone they were prepared to see as their enemy is terrifying. To then be asked also to give a twenty-minute oral presentation or write a twenty-five page paper feels like coming to the top of a steep climb and realizing that there’s another level of fear to overcome.

And not all accept that challenge — or, if it’s required of them by a curriculum, they find ways to evade the hard work and protect themselves from real questioning. But it’s too easy to smugly deride undergraduates, who supposedly grow ever more fragile with each passing year. Seen from a different angle, I’m actually surprised and grateful how many of them are willing to take the risks inherent in a liberal arts education.

(For that matter, listen to the sounds of people cheering in the background of the video. My voice is in there, but most of the noise comes from near-total strangers who were just happy to witness her success. Am I that encouraging to my students? How loudly do I cheer them on when they take a risk?)

Moreover, Lena’s experience makes me wonder if I’ve talked too much about such an education cultivating virtues like humility and empathy, and not enough about how it inculcates perseverance and courage.

Lena in her helmet and harnessBut even as I write that, I veer back to the main educational lesson that I took away from Lena’s accomplishment: We who teach in college probably take too much of the credit for the growth of our students.

It’s not that I don’t think we provide a transformative education, and I’ll continue to make that argument in response to those who would question the value of what we do. But we’re building on the work that parents, schoolteachers, camp counselors, youth pastors, mentors, coaches, and the students themselves have already undertaken — years before we meet them.

One day someone very much like me will give my daughter a challenge in some college course. If she accepts the intellectual, emotional, or spiritual risk it entails, her decision might have little to do with the skill of that professor and much to do with what she learned, thirty feet up in a forest, when she was six years and not quite five months old.

One thought on “What My Daughter Taught Me This Weekend about Courage… and Education

  1. Really loved this post! It would be really interesting to study how the Pietist vision (or perhaps Pietist visions) of Christian formation has influenced camping ministries within the Covenant Church. I think there is a healthy mix of undiluted evangelicalism in the world of ECC camping. But at their best, I think Covenant camps embody the spirit of pietism – even without using that term or categories.

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