We tightened the laces and practiced the art of walking on blades.
We probably looked like a mismatched group – a few white women with nearly 40 middle school students representing multiple countries around the world. Brown skin, black skin, white skin. Tall socks with athletic shorts covered some, and others had come in hoodies and gloves.
Despite whatever differences appeared on the outside, we had at least one thing in common: an hour of ice skating ahead of us. Just on the other side of the glass outstretched an empty rink, glowing bright white from the reflection of the lights above. And there we waited on that weird rubber-like floor, a buzz of eager anticipation filling our space.
When the gates opened, we took turns stepping out onto the ice. Most students entered with timidity holding on to the sides of the rink and reaching for stronger hands, but a few boldly set out and headed for the center of the smooth ice.
I clumsily moved across the ice, calling after students, offering encouragement and a hand along the way. As I went between students, I noticed the boy in the purple hoodie at the gate.
As I helped others, I kept glancing back at him. Watching, I realized that at the gate was a war between going and staying. Clutching the wall, he’d cross the threshold to put one skate on the ice just to quickly bring it back to the safety of the floor. This went on for nearly half an hour. He’d get tired, sit on the bench, and jump up just a couple minutes later to return to the war at the gate. Over and over. Classmates and friends came and went, but for the most part, he was alone.
He waited there.
I skated over to him, hoping I’d reach him before he left the gate for the bench outside again. I made it over to him in time to see his nervous routine up close. “No, no! It’s scary!” he’d say, as soon as the single blade hit the ice. There was no one else there to encourage that second blade to meet the other. Only the boy in the purple hoodie, who was both talking himself into and out of ice skating.
Much later in the day, long after we’d left, I would think about this moment. How many times have I battled with this tension of wanting yet not wanting? How often have I simultaneously danced with courage and fear? How familiar did this routine of flirting with leaving the safety of the gate look in my own life?
But in this moment, I thought only of convincing him to come. I knew he’d regret it later if he didn’t. “I’ll stay with you,” I promised him, as I led him to the wall. Getting his first foot on the ice was pretty easy, but it was the second foot that struggled.
“No, no! It’s too scary!” he repeated, clumsily turning around to meet the gate again. There he went with that dance again. He clutched the wall, and I reached out.
“Come on, I’ll go with you. The wall will be on your right, and I’ll be on your left. Let’s make it to that line. Then, if you don’t like it, we’ll turn around and come back,” I told him, pointing to a line on the ice just a couple yards away.
Hand still outstretched toward him, he took it after barely a single thought. And in that one moment, he made the choice to let his desire to try the new, hard thing; he overpowered the fear that told him to stay.
His hand squeezed mine and his eyes were fixed on his feet, we made it to that line slowly.
“Look, you did it! Do you think we can make it to there?” I said, pointing to a picture just a few yards further on the rink’s wall.
He nodded and we set off, again arriving within seconds.
Having left the dance at the gate, this is how we got around the entire rink: I’d point to a goal, he’d fix his gaze on it, and we’d go there together. Repeat.
Somewhere halfway around the rink, I challenged him to turn around to see how far we’d come. He cautiously turned, still gripping my hand and the wall, and let out a small shriek. “Oh my – no!” he groaned, a smile of accomplishment spreading over his apprehensive voice.
I smiled back, “You’re doing awesome. Do you want to keep going?”
“I try,” he said. Those words became his anthem during these laps around the rink. He repeated them over and over.
I try. Okay. I try.
We were on our second time around the rink when he fell for the first time. We were still moving slow, so he landed softly. He exclaimed, “OW! MY BUTT!”
I chuckled to myself and clapped for him, “Yay! You did it! You fell for the first time!” I reached out my hand to help lift him up. The same fear that held him at the gate threatened to keep his bottom sitting on the ice. But he made a statement to fear when he got back to his feet, dusted off, and set his focus toward the next goal.
I stayed with him. We started making people our focus points. We’d fix our eyes on another teacher, and skate over to them to show them how much we had skated. Eventually, that led us to the center of the rink. Another friend had joined us by then, and the boys laughed and helped each other. But I kept to my promise, and I didn’t leave his side.
When the loud buzzer echoed loudly in the icy room and 00:00 flashed overhead, he looked up confused.
“Time to go?” he asked. I nodded, and we went to the gate together; he was one of the last kids to get off the ice. (A combination of being a very slow skater and being disappointed to leave so soon.)
But what my friend in the purple hoodie couldn’t see yet is how those few minutes changed him. A different kid came off the ice that morning. This wasn’t the same boy that had let fear make up his mind; he stood a little more courageous.
He could have stayed at the gate, and never come out on the ice.
In some ways, it would have been easier to say no. He didn’t have to keep going after that first goal was met – after all, we weren’t that far from the gate. Even when he fell, the pain of the moment wanted to keep him down. When we turned around that first time midway around the rink, fear wanted him to go back to the starting point and stay there.
But he didn’t listen. Instead, in brief moments of decision, he chose to keep going. Over and over.
In a hour of declaration led by a middle schooler set on being brave, perseverance rang victorious as we accomplished the hard task of successfully ice skating.
Hey, honestly. I needed that lesson as much as he did.
I needed to witness again what it looks like when courage speaks louder than fear, and the kind of good, faithful friend perseverance is to us. It molds and refines us, giving reward to our work and assuring us it’s not pointless. Without perseverance, giving up would be easy and we’d always be stuck with the feeling of regretting what we didn’t do.
So, here’s to another day of leaving the gate.
This is where we say yes to courage, silencing our fears long enough to take the first step on the ice. We’re afraid of falling and our clumsiness, yes, but not ruled by it. We do the difficult thing. We listen to the whisper. The whisper that tells us to do exactly what scares us the most in that moment, knowing that the whisper has more beautiful reasons for calling us out. We’d regret missing it.
The longer we practice listening to that voice, the more recognizable it becomes. Here’s where we set our eyes on a goal – no matter how small – and keep going. We stand up, dust off, and skate again believing that the ground hurts a little less with every fall.
No matter what your first (or even continuing) steps look like today, not one of them is without purpose. Even if the best thing they can offer is giving courage the louder voice, then it’s worth it. You are being refined. Just like my friend in the purple hoodie, you get to come back a little taller after it.