She was the quiet kid in a class full of talkers. During the day I spent teaching at that particular alt program, the only words she had spoken until that moment were short answers to my direct questions. She was small and she had a small voice to match. Then an interesting thing happened. A waypoint on the haphazard trajectory of constant conversation that was happening over a Jenga game in one corner of the room stuck out above the others. “Fetishes are weird.” I couldn’t help laughing -this is not a statement one typically hears on a Monday afternoon at work. The girl who had made the observation elaborated: “Like, why would anyone be that interested in feet? It’s creepy!”
I was becoming uncomfortable with the direction we were going with this, but for reasons I won’t begin to discuss here (a blog is not a couch), I let it go. Quiet girl, however, did not. “There’s nothing wrong with having a fetish,” she said, and the conversation veered with stunning focus in her direction. Chatty girl, who wasn’t mean, just not particularly sensitive, wondered, “Why, do you have a fetish?” “No, I just don’t think there’s anything wrong with people liking what they like.” It’s hard to argue with that. The response was half-hearted: “Well if you don’t have one, then why do you care?” “I just don’t think it’s ok to shame people for liking what they like. So please stop.” And that was the end of it.
The scenario got me thinking about courage. I know what it’s like to be the quiet kid. And I know just what it takes to speak up. I nearly fainted once after telling off an irate customer on behalf of an innocent cashier. And I was an adult.
When us outdoorsy folk think about courage, it often revolves around the activities we enjoy. And it’s usually something we think of other people as having -people who go steeper or faster, who huck higher stuff, climb harder, do riskier things. Granted, most of us, at least by my age, have a line that we draw that separates what we consider courageous and what we believe is stupid. It is an ever-fluctuating line, but a line nonetheless. The people who manage to get in bed with the line without crossing it become our icons. And then there are people like Alex Honnold, who leaps so bafflingly far beyond the line that everyone feels a little uncomfortable with his popularity (but he’s just so likeable).
These are the people we pay attention to. We make movies about them, with badass music credits and film fest tour dates, and we argue about their achievements and/or level of crazy. We give these people our energy, if nothing else. We make them our spokespeople and our inspiration. And that’s great. But courage doesn’t live in the mountains.
It lives with the quiet girl who spoke for people who might not have even been in the room.
That same week, at another school, there was a man who came to speak to the students about internet safety. He had a lot of interesting things to say about social media awareness, but the part of his presentation that really stuck with me had nothing to do with the internet: He had made a joke, and one of the hundreds of students in the auditorium called out, “Women, right?” in that tone people use when they are demeaning a whole group of other people, for no good reason. The speaker stopped laughing, asked the student to repeat himself, and got really serious, really quickly. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was his tone that mattered. The message he was sending was that it is not funny to belittle women.
The heckler was probably expecting the speaker to laugh with him. He probably had no idea he was being as offensive as he was-he was a 14-year-old after all. But how a respected adult reacted to his thoughtless comment will probably ensure that his next comment is a little less thoughtless. It was what they call a teachable moment.
I am trying very hard to make the most of those moments, and not to let things go as often as I do. I’m trying to be more like the quiet girl.