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Where the learning never ends ...

A New and a Little Scary Place

Originally posted on The Wild Writers Web site ...

A bunch of years ago I took a six-week swing dance class here in Boulder. I had always loved watching the expert dancers on the dance floor—the timing, the spins and rocks, the lifts, the glee. The good hoofers made it look so effortless, so fluid—so fun!

Our instructors were great—gifted and patient. But by the second class I realized something that made my heart and stomach sink: I … was … a … slow … learner. I had to practice the most basic “step, step, rock step” a couple dozen times before it started to make any kind of connection between my brain and feet. Simple spin? My partner was lucky I didn’t tear out her arm by turning the wrong way. Partner Charleston? Give that girl some shin pads.

Oh, and then have us do a “show-what-you-know” during class? Anxiety turned to dread amped up to breath-holding fright as the instructors went down the line of dancers. When our turn came, I couldn’t remember even how to start! The only sound in my brain was the static of self-consciousness. (I think I drooled.)

As a kid and youth, I had a rep as a fast learner—at least that’s how I remember it. I had played sports and been in the high school band and done musicals and theater—but that was a long time before this. Somehow I thought ingrained confidence from those experiences would automatically kick in.

Instead, I finished those six weeks with an in-depth knowledge of the inner life of the wallflower. And as much as I told myself to relax and just have fun, I was constantly fending off self-consciousness about being the dork with two left clown shoes.

Along the way, though, I had a revelation as it related to my writing for kids. Self-conscious wallflowers? That is how many, many kids feel every day as they head off to music lessons or basketball practice or the classroom—especially as the bus carries them into adolescence. They are constantly facing new challenges and learning new things, and many (most?) must navigate social fears and self-doubt as well as the content—curricular or otherwise.

This helped renew my affection and compassion for my young readers. I want to write for them in ways that reassure them that yes, there are challenges and setbacks, but struggles and mistakes are part and parcel of life. So let’s be patient and kind with ourselves and others so the shy, wonderful things that live inside us feel safe enough to emerge from the shadows. I want to show in my stories that living life and enjoying it is not about being the best or even particularly good at what we try. It is about showing up, opening ourselves to sense and beauty, and taking part at whatever level our abilities and personalities allow.

When I want a reminder about the reality of kids’ lives, I now know one of the best things I can do is try something that makes me nervous. I try to experience the sweaty palms and the heart-bending thrills of going outside my comfort zone—failing, falling down, laughing, then getting back up and trying again.

Those of us who work with young people should occasionally seek that out; because “The New And a Little Scary” is a place where kids live every day.
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