The Risk of Being Bad

Yesterday, as the temperature in NYC dipped into the 20s, we boarded the buses that would take our 6 classes of 9th and 10th graders ice skating. They were bundles of nervous, screechy energy, even before we got near the ice. Most of our students have been in the US for less than 2 years, though we do have some who have been living in New York since middle school. But very few had been ice skating before, and even one of our students who went skating year-round as a child in Russia was anxious, having not been on the ice in over 2 years.

We arrived at the rink as another school trip was finishing up, so our students sat in the bleachers to watch as this group of teenagers glided and fumbled around the rink. Some seemed more assured at seeing other people creep hesitantly around the perimeter, or fly by like they might know what they were doing until a sudden lurch in their balance had them shrieking and windmilling their arms in panic. Others clenched their jaws and shook their heads. “Ooooh no,” one of my students said, resting her head on my shoulder. “I am definitely going to fall.”

“Maybe,” I told her, patting her arm. “But you’ll get back up. And then your butt will be too cold to feel anything, so it won’t hurt the next time!” She laughed, looking pale.

When they took the ice, they were a blizzard of activity and noise – from those clinging to the side and screaming in terror at the surreal feeling of standing on two thin blades above a sheet of frozen water, to those who barreled forward, fell spectacularly, and scrambled back up to try again. Two of my students glided alongside of me, slowly, as one held the other’s arm and gave her soothing encouragements.

Why am I so bad at this?” she wailed, grasping her friend’s arm desperately as she wobbled.

“It’s ok!” her friend assured her. She helped her straighten up before they continued inching along. “You have to be bad at something before you can be good!”

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this idea. I’ve seen it as a snappy aphorism on Instagram, said some version of it several times, and even glimpsed it in student journals. It’s good advice, I think, and true in its core, if over-meme’d. It’s a nice reminder not to let imperfection stop you from trying.

It wasn’t working for this girl, though. After she had been dragged screaming around the rink a few times, she clambered off to the benches to take a break. I sat down beside her a few minutes later. She turned to me: “Never. Again.”

I asked her why she was ready to give up, repeating some variation of her friend’s advice that everyone is bad the first time they try something.

“Not me,” she said firmly. “I only do things I am good at.”

Her friends and I laughed and teased her a bit, and she shook her head over her hot chocolate at the ridiculousness of the whole concept. But it’s had me thinking. How do we get students to take the risk of being bad? Showing students that it’s normal to not be good at something right away invites some students in, but what about students who, like my non-skater here, just do not do things they are not good at?

These are puzzles I am constantly working on, building on and adding to my approaches, searching for more ways to model falling on my butt for students to feel comfortable to do the same. More than reminding me of this tension, the trip and my student’s reaction encouraged me to pause and appreciate the young people I work with. Whether it’s hurtling across the ice (slash, inching around the wall in terror) or writing and speaking in our classes, it is amazing how bravely my students will attempt what they do not know. The risks we ask them to take are not small, and yet even when we demand them with mid-year impatience, they try and try again. So, maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. Instead of focusing only on how to get my students to take more risks, I should be asking myself how I can learn from their willingness to take the risks they do, and how they can share that with each other.

Right now, we are talking about what it means to be brave, as we warm up for Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave, and I have encouraged students to mine their own experiences for examples of bravery. I’m excited after our Friday of winter fun to show them one more instance of their courage, and share how they inspire me.

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