Periodic Daydreaming

The Occasional Thoughtful Ramblings of a Creative and Caffeinated Science Teacher

Finding Comfort in the Uncomfortable

Periodic Daydream #11

This month Alex Honnold completed what once seemed like an impossible feat. He free-solo climbed Yosemite’s infamous El Capitan, a 3,000 foot peak. This is clearly a unique accomplishment that took several years of preparation and training, and given the challenge of the task he probably didn’t assume it was a sure thing. In fact, he used a technique called “smearing” to climb sections that are comparable to a countertop in texture, moving fast enough to avoid the impacts of gravity.  As quoted in the article, Alex discusses the importance of stepping outside his comfort zone:

“There were so many little sections where I thought ‘Ughh — cringe,’ ” Honnold said. “But in the years since, I’ve pushed my comfort zone and made it bigger and bigger until these objectives that seemed totally crazy eventually fell within the realm of the possible.”

Over these past few weeks several students have graduated high school and are eager to move on to the next adventure. Some are feeling a sense of accomplishment, just as Alex did after completing his climb. To some, the high school experience might have felt insurmountable and constantly uncomfortable, and actually receiving that diploma is a major accomplishment. Other students  while seeing graduation as an important milestone are probably not in a state of awe, and are instead moving through the motions required during this specific life stage.

I had the privilege the previous  week of chaperoning the senior trip in which the graduating students spent the day at Devil’s Lake, a state park in Wisconsin intertwined with the Ice Age Trail with great hiking where students could venture out on paddle boats and canoes or go for a hike along the many trails. This place is not new to me, in fact,  I’ve visited it many times with friends and family. However, I was reminded of my own experience as a graduating senior in 2002. While many students are excited about moving on after high school, I remember being in a state of disappointment and dissatisfaction. I had worked so hard, I expected some great sense of closure or at least a clear future plan to float upon me. It never did.  

Throughout the four years of school, I had completed the required tasks, but hadn’t taken many risks or tried to expand my comfort zone, until senior skip day at Devil’s Lake. While as a teacher and parent we caution students to stay on the trail and off the rocks, I did not stay off the rocks that day, instead I climbed them. For a person with very little athleticism or balance, this was a large leap outside my comfort zone.   This experience became the topic of my own brief graduation speech, one that is still helping me today.  (Note: My mother had to search the house to find this file on a 3.5 inch floppy disk!)

Each day of our lives, we are faced with the expectations of others and the expectations we have for ourselves. I am only one out of the thousands of valedictorians in the country today, and like them, I am expected to share some words of knowledge, guidance, and inspiration with my graduating class. Some of you are probably wanting  me to say how we are all sad about leaving high school and yet excited about moving on to bigger and better things. You are probably expecting  many things out of life.

Throughout my four years of high school, I have worked hard believing  this honor would bring great fulfillment and meaning to my high school career. I have done what was expected of me, and in return, it has not given me that great fulfillment I was looking for. I do not regret working hard, and I am not saying that what I have accomplished is nothing. What I am saying, is life extends farther than high school, classes, tests, and a grade point average, and it has taken me awhile to realize that.

While at Devils Lake, a few weeks ago, I was forced by Tom Stadler (a classmate) to climb the rocks. I am not a risk taker and never do anything unless I expect myself to succeed. The second I looked up at the rocks, I told myself, “You can’t do this.” I was expecting to fail, but for some odd reason I took that first step. Of course everyone else wouldn’t consider climbing rocks a big accomplishment, but when I finally got to the top, the feeling of fulfillment was much greater than any academic award I have ever received. I know there is so much more I am capable of doing, much more than I ever expected.

I do not have enough knowledge or life experience to know exactly what to say that would make a difference in your lives, I can only tell you what I have realized in the past few weeks. You should not live your life according to the expectations others have for you, and you should not expect things in the future. Too often, in our lives we do not take that first step, and are disappointed because what we expected to happen did not. There are many rocks left to climb, but take it one step at a time. Always remember, you have to live for yourself today, because yesterday is gone and tomorrow may never come. Thank you.

This was a very brief speech, but it still provides me with guidance today. I still  struggle to step outside my comfort zone. I often need a push (sometimes several) from a more daring friend. As a teacher, I wonder if we are creating opportunities for our students to step outside their comfort zones, while also creating spaces for the students who see school as one big zone of discomfort. Students have to experience both comfort and discomfort if they are going to succeed and continue to grow as independent individuals. It’s natural for us to want to provide a cushion, but maybe what they really need is a gentle shove. Even though I don’t aspire to free solo El Capitan like Alex Honnold, his accomplishment can be the reminder we need to at least take that first step towards our own challenges. Let’s find comfort with the uncomfortable, and encourage our students to do the same.

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