TOAD Talk: Lessons from the Rock

Melanie Berner
Like most people, I can find quite a bit to complain about when it comes to my job. Being a faculty member at Thacher certainly has its challenges and difficulties, and I’m especially prone to focus on those at the end of the term when I’m writing 50 student comments and grading a stack of English papers. But I also have a lot of time to reflect on what is pretty awesome about working here. 

First, that I constantly get to be a student again, which is great. I can’t think of a better job than teaching to feed the desire that I have to be a perpetual student.

And, second, that I get paid to do something that I love. Actually 3 things that bring me immense joy and happiness, that challenge me, and give me purpose: Reading books and talking about them, meditation and mindfulness, and climbing rocks.

So I’d like to talk about the 3rd one - climbing rocks - today to share a bit about what I’ve learned (as a “student” of rock climbing) and why it matters to me/ how it brings me joy. In the climbing program at Thacher, which is something pretty unique to this place, I’ve had the opportunity to be a student in so many ways.

As I thought about my talk, I broke the “lessons” into three areas: lessons from the rock, lessons from the coach, and lessons from students.

Lessons from the rock: 
Humility. Rocks are hard. Literally. That’s not a huge revelation, but when you start climbing rocks, you quickly realize just how hard, and you realize that skin is quite soft. Scraped knees and knuckles, flappers, cheese graters. What this means is that I have had to learn how to work with the rock, appreciate it, learn to trust it. Climbing is not about sheer strength or athleticism, but more of a dance, a balancing act. You’ll often hear climbers at Thacher saying to a partner “Trust your feet” and it really is about trusting your feet. You will never “conquer” the rock, “beat” the rock, “win” at climbing a rock… and it can be really humbling: one day you may easily be able to complete a climb; the next day, on the same climb you can’t get past the second move. The rock will be here long after I am gone, which is a comforting thought in a world where things are constantly changing. Which brings me to the next thing I’ve learned - how to be right here right now.

Climbing is conducive to being in the present moment.

Time slows down when I’m climbing. The pace of life here is pretty fast, but for those couple hours each afternoon, it’s an opportunity to slow down and be fully present. (Ferris Bueller quote? “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it.”) Feeling the texture of the rock face beneath your fingers, barefoot climbing, feeling your heart pumping in your chest as you realize how far below you the ground is, all serves to bring you back to the present moment experience. There is something about knowing you could fall at any moment that forces you to narrow your focus to what is right in front of you. At the same time, the view from the top is pretty spectacular and a reminder to remember the full picture, to look at things from a different perspective. 

Lessons from the coach:
It is hard not to experience whatever is happening NOW when you are climbing, and as a climbing coach, Mr. Manson is the embodiment of being in the now. He has taught me a lot about climbing, for sure, but beyond that, he models respect in his interactions with students as well as trust. Not only is he generous with his time, but more important than quantity is the quality of that time: he listens /collaborates with students on what they want or need out of their time in the climbing program, doing his best to make the experience challenging, productive, and enjoyable. His willingness to let them - and in fact encourage them - to take risks, has informed me as a coach, a teacher, and even as a parent. And Mr. Manson is always reminding us not to miss an opportunity to watch the sunset from the ridge during winter climbing. 

Lessons from students:
So many - I’ve learned to swear in Spanish; like Mr. Ortiz, the intricacies of spoken and unspoken rizz have been explained to me; I’ve been informed of Celsius and Liquid Death. And, I’ve seen kids overcome their fear of heights, I’ve seen students do things they never thought they were capable of, and I’ve seen more more determination and perseverance - through scraped knuckles and knees, flappers, blisters, and frustration - to keep at the same climb or boulder problem over days, weeks, or even months or multiple seasons.

But one thing that stands out to me most about the climbing program here is what it means to be a “team:” Climbing is in some ways a very individual pursuit, but also something that almost always involves a partner. No one gets to the top of Batman on their own, or reaches the anchor at Three Little Pigs or Daddy Y without the support of a spotter or a belayer, both physical support, but also emotional support and encouragement. Individual success - like so many other things at Thacher - really is a communal effort, and the way the climbers celebrate the success of a teammate finally getting Jameson face is a wonderful reminder of the joy that comes from recognizing and sharing another person’s joy and success, a reminder that someone else’s win is not your loss, but an opportunity to cultivate empathy, genuine connections, and to experience the happiness that comes from feeling happy for others. When we elevate others, we’re often carried up with them, and it’s hard not to leave a practice feeling good. So here’s to finding something you love, finding a way to do that thing every day, and maybe even finding a way to get paid for it. 

Melanie Berner teaches English at Thacher and lives on campus with her husband and son. For more about Thacher's faculty, please visit our Faculty Unscripted page.

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