“It hurts!” She gasped and sobbed as she stumbled along behind me. “It hurts!”
“It’s OK, I know. We’re almost back. We’ll be OK, you’ll see. You can do it.” I kept up what I hoped was a soothing monologue, all the while ignoring each new scratch and cut tearing at my legs. I was hurting, too, but I knew her pain was worse, so I kept calm for her.
It’s the first time I remember having to be strong for someone else. I was in middle school at the time, spending a week of my summer at an overnight camp. I’d befriended two girls named Ashley and Hannah who had come to the camp together. The three of us became good friends over the week – though apparently, we didn’t try to keep in touch at all after camp was over.
One day, the counselors took us all out to an island in the middle of a lake. I’m sure memory is skewing the size of the island in my head, but it seemed quite large to my pre-teen eyes. The counselors had organized a game of capture-the-flag over the whole island, and soon we had all fanned out, roaming the land and trying to get past that invisible center line. Of course, my two friends and I stuck together as we explored. We weren’t the most aggressive capture-the-flag players, but we participated with the best of them. However, that day, we soon forgot all about teams and flags and trying to be sneaky.
We made our way around the island, careful not to cross the center line before we had a better sense of what was going on in the game. We left the sand and beaches behind and picked our way through scratchy plants and rocky terrain. Eventually, we came across what may have been either a tiny pond or a huge puddle – I’m not sure which. Either way, the land was a bit marshy. That’s when Ashley stumbled onto a wasps’ nest. And I don’t mean she found it. I mean she literally stumbled on to it. Within seconds, her legs were covered in wasp stings and she was hysterical with fright and pain.
Hannah and I grabbed Ashley by the arms and ran. Fortunately, the wasps didn’t think it worth it to follow us, and somehow Hannah and I had escaped without a single sting. But Ashley was in bad shape. She was gasping and sobbing in pain, but there was no one else around to help us. In our efforts to be sneaky while playing the game, we’d lost sight of any people on either team. We were three young girls alone in the middle of an island, and one of us could barely stand on her own legs. I was scared, but I didn’t want to say that in front of Ashley. Hannah was more frustrated and less sympathetic to Ashley’s plight. She snapped at her friend and told her to shut up more than once, but obviously, that didn’t help Ashley at all. I realized that if we were going to get out of this, it was going to fall to me.
I convinced Ashley that she needed to be able to walk so that we could get her back to the beach, where the counselors had set up their base. We had come a round-a-bout way to get to that spot on the island, so we decided not to retrace our steps and instead cut a straight line for the beach. We wanted to get to help as fast as possible. I’m not sure that was the best decision, though, because on the way back, we found ourselves knee-deep in a sea of thorny bushes and briers. There was no path to follow (there weren’t any paths on the island that we had seen). At first we tried to carefully pick our way, but clearly that wasn’t working for Ashley, and it was really slow going. Instead, I took the lead and just pushed through. I used my bare legs to break a path for Hannah and Ashley to follow.
All the while, Ashley was crying behind me and I often had to remind her to stay calm, assuring her that we were close to the beach and getting her help (in truth, I had no idea how far we were). Hannah was less patient with Ashley, but for the most part, she followed my lead and kept her frustration under control. Both of them managed to follow in my wake without getting scraped up too badly, which meant my plan was working. I came to expect the scratches and cuts and just kept pushing through, repeating my assurances that we would be OK as we went.
I don’t know how long we slogged through those bushes, but when we finally emerged and were able to make our way down the beach, my legs were about as bad as Ashley’s. In the weeks that followed, people often honestly asked if I’d been caught in a cat fight, because that’s how I looked from the knees down. I was visibly bleeding more than the others, so the counselors came rushing to my side first. I had to direct them to Ashley, who was still sobbing with the pain of her wasp stings, before I let them take care of me. It took weeks for my scratched-up legs to heal completely, and even in my teen years I could still pick out the scars from some of the deeper cuts – though I can’t find them anymore.
The scars may be gone, but I’ve felt the feelings of that day over and over again. I’ve shoved aside my own fear and put my own well-being second because someone in my life needed me to be strong for them. Whether it was putting on the brave face while my brother was in the hospital or suppressing my own stress to help my husband get through his accelerated optometry program, I still feel the same resolve, the same measured breathing, and the need to simply keep going and push through.
I think I’ve learned to recognize that look in many of my students, too. It’s a unique combination of resolve, acceptance, and pain that comes out in a glance when they look at me and see that I understand. I saw it in the eyes of Landon as he parented his little sister and worked two jobs to pay his tuition and put food on the table. I saw it in the eyes of Alana as she carried the weight of tragedy, a silent rock for her family to lean on even though she desperately wanted the right to not be OK, too. I saw it in the students who shared their stories through personal essays, who told me of their struggles with broken homes, disease, and pain. For so many young people, the teen years are nowhere near the best years of their lives. They learn too early how to suck it up and keep on going, how to keep pushing through, and how to carry others through, too.
I don’t describe this quality to brag on myself or my students, because though it can be helpful sometimes, it comes with negative consequences, too. For instance, I’ve realized that I’m not good at asking for help in my personal life. I’m not good at taking my needs and asking someone else to help carry them for me. I’ve gotten a little better over the years. I’ve cried on my husband’s shoulder and vented my frustrations to friends. I’ve asked for prayer from family members during difficult times. But that’s not my instinctual tendency. My instinct is to suck it up and keep on going, no matter what. My instinct is to try to be strong, even when I can’t.
It works for me as a teacher, though. I’m good at checking my personal life at the door and doing my job. It takes something really big for me to show people at work that I’m upset over something at home. It has also helped to build the thick skin necessary for substitute teaching. And it has given me the empathy to see the struggles of my students, to reach out to them, and give them someone who doesn’t need them to be strong.
What about you? What traits did you learn early in life that you’ve carried with you over the years?