Janet Sheridan: I did it
In August of 2002, I took a daily walk in the early morning air of Aspen at the same time three boys rode their bicycles to school. Every day, I watched the two older boys swoop up a lengthy, steep incline to a highway overpass that led to the school. The younger boy, probably a brother to one of the other two, pumped with all his might as he approached the incline, stalled when he hit it, and had to push his bike to the top of the grade.
The older boys rode on without a backward glance.
Gradually, as weeks passed, the youngster managed a few more turns of his bike’s wheels before he toppled sideways. Finally, in late October with a cold wind blowing and leaves skittering, I watched the determined lad try again. This time, moving so slowly his front wheel wobbled, he rode his bicycle up and onto the overpass. He stopped, a grin as wide as his handle bars spreading across his face, and then rode on, his triumphant cry, “I did it!” floating in the air behind him.
The older boys didn’t notice his achievement; and he neither heard nor needed my applause: he had accomplished his goal by himself, for himself, without anyone’s coaching or encouragement. And I remembered the feeling.
At eight, I sat on the edge of an irrigation tank, looking for my courage. The tank, built by my grandfather, also served as a murky, squat swimming pool for my siblings and me. Fed by an artesian well, it was six-feet square with cement walls five-feet high and a mud floor. Dead insects, rotting leaves, and clouds of slimy moss decorated the tank’s chilly water.
I faced outward, away from the water, in a hand-me-down swimming suit, stretched and faded from too many years on too many bodies, daring myself to flop backward into the tank. Doing so would be a stunning act, as dangerous as last month when I jumped from the lowest branch of a cottonwood tree and survived.
I breathed deeply, counted to 10, and flung myself backward. My shoulders hit first; then my head torpedoed underwater, and my legs careened over my head, turning me in a back flip. Flailing my arms, I forced my feet down until they hit bottom. When my head broke free, I spewed mossy water and roared, “Janet the wonder girl strikes again!”
My only witness, Sweet Alice, an unimpressed Holstein, switched her tail and ambled away. No one knew what I had done, so I heard no cheers or congratulations; but meeting my self-imposed challenge was reward enough.
Such self-motivated achievements — witnessed only by one’s self or a few skeptical friends or siblings — build confidence and self-reliance in children. The inner resolve I developed when young helped my adult self run two miles without throwing up, travel alone to Greece when a friend cancelled, stand on top of a Colorado fourteener, deal with the personal devastation of divorce, and cut my sugar consumption without crying.
When young, did you climb higher in a tree than you thought you could? Sign up for a class, team, or activity even though you knew it would be difficult? Swim into the deep end of the pool when your heart was thudding with fear? Speak in defense of a friend or a sibling when no one else did?
If so, I believe those self-contained experiences helped you meet other goals throughout your life. The best triumphs are personal. The inner shout, “I did it,” resounds louder than the cheers and congratulations of others and lasts longer than celebrations, titles, and trophies. The internal strength we need to face tough situations when we’re alone, discouraged, or unsure, begins with the personal challenges of childhood.
So, as difficult as it can be, I think sometimes we need to let our children and grandchildren play, struggle, and achieve without our presence, coaching, praise, and rewards.
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