The ego can only bear so much.
On Sunday — skates tied, blood sugar checked (low), juice box drunk, and gloves on — I stood for a few minutes at the entrance to the Babson ice and watched the activity. There were about 8 young girls in shorts, heavy tights, cute sweatshirts, and lush ponytails jumping and turning and skating backwards with precision and verve. There were an equal number of adults in black track pants and black parkas standing near the boards, studying the girls. Occasionally, a girl would skate over to one of the adults and listen to instructions. Sometimes, the adult would demonstrate, beautifully, what s/he wanted the girl to do. The girl would do it.
And there was me. I stood there for a couple of minutes, hesitating. I had already paid my $30 to get on the ice for freestyle/practice time, and I had an appointment with Fred, who was already out there with a young girl, about halfway through the 80 minutes. I had arrived intending to practice. I stood there, losing my nerve.
As I told my friend Rosemary last week, as we stood in front of the shelf marked “Buddhism” in the Trident, my internal dialogue, for better or worse, is turned up pretty high. (I’ve heard this called “mind chatter.”) Sunday, as I stood at the gate to the Babson ice, I thought, “Why am I doing this? Nothing can come from it.”
“But I am doing this,” myself said to myself. I began.
As I skated, I was overcome with intense self-consciousness, and not of the good kind. I imagined myself getting in the other skaters’ way — the real skaters — and so I tried to stay out of their way. I imagined that one coach, a woman about my age, was giving me the hairy eyeball, as if to intimidate me off the ice.
I practiced the easy things, not wanting to make a mistake among the masters. I scolded myself. I propped up my ego by remembering something Grace once said when I was skating with her and confessed to doubts about my ambition. “Mom!” she said. “At least you’re out there and not sitting on the bleachers!” I practiced harder things.
I imagined again that hairy eyeball turned in my direction. I mentally constructed some believable excuses and apologies I would give to Fred when my appointment with him began.
Get a hold of yourself, Jane. Think other thoughts.
So, I ruminated on what it might feel like to be a under-prepared student in a class with very well-prepared students. I thought in particular of one former student (I’ll call him Adam), who for the first several weeks of a writing class specialized in giving me a hard time. “Why are we doing this? What’s the point of this? You’re not clear.” Over and over. It took me too long to get tired of this, but finally I did. “Adam, let’s talk privately after class.” And we did, and he told me, plaintively, “I don’t know how to do what you are expecting us to do.” Ah. He and I worked together, one-to-one, for the rest of the semester outside of class, so that he could submit a decent report for his research project, which he did. We became fond of each other, in a student + teacher way.
It’s really hard to be a beginner when everyone you compare yourself to is so good and will always be ahead of you. To stick with it becomes a choice you make over and over and over. (And, as we know, in life it is easier not to choose.)
At last, my appointed lesson with Fred began. Even though we are not friends, I was so relieved when he skated up next to me. I was feeling like a dinghy, adrift, and here comes the boat to moor myself to!
A few weeks had passed since our previous lesson, so first we reviewed. I worried that I had slipped behind, and I still couldn’t finish the 3-turn. More work to do on that. As he put me through the cross-overs, however, and gave me little corrections, Fred — not a lavish compliment-giver — said, “You should feel proud of yourself. You’ve taken these pretty far. Most beginners stop as soon as they can cross one skate over the other.” Inside, I smiled, although I tried to be cool on the outside. “Keep working on the second push,” he added.
I finished with a feeling of not so much accomplishment but progress. That’s the thing about learning, I think. There has to be movement, as well as an idea of the immediate next thing to do.
The ego can only bear so much, alone. A good coach helps.
4 thoughts on “Flimsy, flimsy ego”
There was just an article on “Tomorrow’s Professor” about how learning new things makes us better teachers. This is a great reminder.
Thanks for the reference, K. Here it is for other readers: http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/tomprof/posting.php?ID=1123
I would add to his remarks: learn something hard. That’s what students have to do, and it’s good for us to experience this, too.
I just finished Atul Gawande’s article in the New Yorker, “Coaching a Surgeon.” It speaks to the benefits of coaching even if you are at the top of your game, and how hard it is to put yourself in a position to accept criticism and change what you are doing. I think it bends nicely to what you are saying about getting out of your comfort zone and the willing yourself to keep going.
Beth, I read that shortly after I finished writing this post. It’s excellent, and Gawande’s article and my own experience (with being on the learning end of coaching) remind me how powerful it is when students seek advice from tutors (or, academic coaches). Often, in the university, professors sometimes view tutors and tutoring as remedial activities, rather than other forms of educational/teaching activities, and the students who seek tutoring as deficient somehow. Gawande got this reaction from one of his patients, and he concluded his article with a description of the reaction.
It is so hard to invite and accept criticism, and it is more attractive and comforting to believe one’s self a master than a novice.
Perhaps novice/master does not have to be a binary, as Gawande shows, and as every good writing tutor (which I have been) knows.