It is early August 1998, and my husband and I are spending six days in Bermuda for the first time, celebrating my 50th birthday and our 30th anniversary. We’ve come with few expectations about the island, save for the comments of friends who have visited before and who somewhat enigmatically remark, “Oh, you’ll love it; it’s beautiful.”
Now, on our second day, we are ready to rent motor scooters to tour the island at our own pace. This is pretty exciting stuff; we’ve talked about it since we first planned the trip. Can’t wait to get started.
Well, just a minute, actually. I find myself not quite as secure as I had anticipated. Instructed to make a circle around the driveway of the hotel before heading out on the road (where we will be remembering to stay on the left, please), I discover my scooter making errant forays, heading directly toward the veranda.
I make another circle. This time it is the garden I narrowly avoid. The inside of my right calf, I discover, already appears blue, as I use it to help manhandle my way. I mutter to my husband that I am not ready for the road yet, and the whole process terrifies me.
On my third attempt I make it around the circle, finally understanding that turning involves more leaning that turning, actually. The rental “instructor” (does giving one a helmet and telling her how to start the engine count as instruction?) assures me that the best way to learn is to drive in traffic.
We head out. Driving on the left. Turning only left, if I have anything to say about it. For some reason I can turn left with no problem. My back is stiff. My shoulders are stiff. I wonder if the soles of my shoes still exist, given that I have been using them as additional brake pads.
My husband wonders why it is that I, who plays a huge variety of sports and can pick up a gunnysack from the ground off a horse at a gallop, am having trouble with this scooter. I growl in response that I don’t know why, I just do. Actually, I know that I’m good at hand-eye/foot-eye coordination things, not activities that require balance.
Suddenly I am struck by the parallels between what I am experiencing and what confronts students as they enter middle school. For how many students is the experience a frightening, unnerving one — even as they are excited by the prospects? How many students suddenly face challenges and difficulties that they have never encountered?
How many suddenly discover that the skills they have developed over the years are no longer adequate? How many see their friends taking off with no apparent concerns or difficulties?
And how many times do we, as parents and teachers, say to those students that we just can’t understand what the problem is: They can do so many other things and have done so well up to this point?
Five hours later, I am too cool for words. The next day I even take off for several hours on my own. I am, after all, a middle schooler. I can turn left. I can turn right. I can even drive in downtown Hamilton. Accelerating through a series of turns continues to make me nervous, but I understand the need for velocity.
Whoops, now it’s dark, and I am muttering again. I am, however, incredibly fortunate to be accompanied by my husband: a patient man who, even while he can’t quite understand what is unnerving his normally fearless wife, respects the reality of her feelings. He supports me and encourages me, but he doesn’t push me too fast or too far, nor does he belittle me in any way. He recognizes that I am definitely disappointed in — and somewhat amused by — myself.
I am determined to remember about motor scooters and middle schoolers as the year begins. I will think about looking past the bravado. I will understand about old skills not always being sufficient. I will appreciate the expectations of others and the pressures they exert.
I will caution patience and forbearance and respect when students know they need to speed up sometimes and slow down others. I will empathize and celebrate when I watch kids being too cool for words.
And I won’t be surprised when they are taken off guard once again when the sun sets and it gets dark.
Ruth Glass is headmaster at Lake Tahoe School. She can be reached for comment through her blog at www.laketahoeschool.org.