Friday morning, and the playground is deserted. Since I teach only one class today and Timmy is hard at work in the counseling department at school, Friday mornings I stay home with Luci. After what feels like a month of freezing weather and sickness, we’ve seized our health and the balmy temperatures and walk across the river and two big streets to the park. We walk, on our own four feet, without any strollers involved. Big steps for the little person beside me.
They’re just the first of many today. When we get to the empty playground, (suspecting all of the other two-year-olds are either in Kindergarten or still eating breakfast) Luci peruses the toy options. While I generally find German playgrounds somewhat superior to their American counterparts–full of the risky, wood-metal-tire climbable things that I remember from my own childhood–this one is a little sparse. The Americans in Kandern call this the “zipline park” because of the pretty cool zipline that runs across it, but Luci is still too small for the zipline, which leaves only a few other options.
Luci investigates them carefully. She rides the Bouncy Cat–a chipped-paint feline on a giant, rusty spring–for a few seconds. Next, I push her in the swing, an activity which brings plenty of giggling, but again only lasts a minute or two. Swings were apparently cooler when she was 18 months old. We use the digger for a while, swiveling this ageless tool in every direction and creating a trench in the pebbly, twiggy sand around it. “What about the teeter totter?” she asks, pointing to the magnificent contraption, with spots for three kids on either side. I note that we’re at least one kid short for see-sawing merriment. Finally, she turns to the slide.
I hate this slide. Maybe hate is too strong a word–I generally reserve that one for major systemic injustices, and also pickles–but this slide freaks me out. It is about ten feet high, its precipitous steel slope polished to a mirror-like sheen by the behinds of endless multitudes hurtling down at the speed of light, their little feet scraping away the pebbles at the bottom as they try to come to something like a halt. The worst part about this slide, the part that has for the most part kept Luci off of it for almost two years now, is the approach. Where the friendly, plastic slides on the Air Force base have friendly little steps to the top of their five-foot drops, this one is a ladder. It has maybe seven metal rungs, spread at a distance that would challenge a clumsy adult, let alone a shorter-than-average toddler.
“Can I go on that slide?” Luci asks me. Moment of truth. Yes, I’ve gone down the slide with her before. That’s how I know it’s fast. I’ve also lifted her halfway up the slide and let her drift the last few feet to the bottom, where I caught her before her feet touched the ground. We could do that again, I suppose.
It’s scary being a parent, with what seems like an endless newsreel of potential worst-case scenarios playing on a precarious back-channel in my brain. But there’s another channel. There’s the outdoor instructor channel, remembering teaching young adults, teenagers and, yes, little children to rock climb in the Alps, helping them to overcome fears of heights and falling, acknowledging danger and respecting the risks. There’s my own childhood, full of tree-climbing and forest-exploring and scaling the outside walls of our house from a shockingly young age. I look back at the slide.
“Yes. You can go on the slide.” I stand behind her while she climbs the ladder, one hesitant rung at a time. I remind her to look down at her feet, to place one tiny boot solidly before she moves the next one, to always hold on with both hands. When she gets to the top, I tell her to wait again. “Wait for me, and I’ll come around and catch you.” She waits, and from the front of the slide I half expect her to freeze, from the height or the steepness or the weight of being alone up there, for once in control of when she comes down. Instead, she looks at the view, a particularly nice one from way up high, takes a deep breath, grins at me, and then comes down.
And it’s not as fast as I remember; I don’t have to catch her, even. She comes to the bottom, breathless and happy. “Can I do it again?” she asks. We spend the rest of our time at the park on the slide.
On perhaps her eighth time up the ladder, when she’s more confident with the rungs, I hear my daughter say, to herself or to me, “I’m doing it!”
I think about my students, working hard to finish their research papers before this evening. It’s been a long process, these 5-7 page papers on American authors, and we’re all a little tired of it. I also know, because they’ve told me–loudly–that this is the longest paper they’ve ever written. Like, ever. I imagine some of them are already scheming how to make it truly the longest paper of their lives, plotting careers that will take them far away from writing. That happens, I tell them, when you’re tired.
After a few weeks, though, I hope the story changes. I hope that at some point, when they passed the borders of the most pages or words they ever wrote down, someone said, “I’m doing it!” I’m writing a paper, and it’s hard, but I’m doing it anyway.
I talk often with my young-mom peers about the skills we’ve brought to motherhood from earlier in our lives. The dietician who writes about feeding young children, or the artist who lets her son “help” her prepare pots for glazing. The pastor whose children take part in every aspect of her ministry, retelling Bible stories in their own charming ways from very young ages.
As I start to think about the transition from teaching to full-time parenting, it’s tempting–and intimidating–to see it as a hard border crossing, a citizenship change, as I leave behind everything from one role to jump fully into the other. Yet I’ve suspected for a long time that nothing we do in our lives needs to be wasted. I’ve still played violin and made spreadsheets and lattes as an English teacher, remnants of former lives that have come in handy in my current career. And I this next chapter will doubtless be full of teaching, whether its the logistics of climbing a ladder, or the celebration of accomplishing something risky, hard and a little bit scary for both of us.