Thursday, February 6, 2014

Not safety first!

I just got back from a trail run with my students. I coach trail running so this is nothing surprising. However, I'm suffering from a foot injury at the moment that is exacerbated by impact so I hopped on a friend's mountain bike and followed the students on their run.

This was only the third time I've ever mountain biked in my life. I'm not good at it yet, but I enjoy the hell out of it. I wiped out solidly once (so far that seems to be my track record, one solid wipe out per ride) and struggled up a number of short steep hills (which is what the majority of trails around here consist of). I'm fine until I hit any of the large rocks in the middle of the incline and then I have trouble jumping my front tire up in time to keep my forward momentum. So, I wind up stopping short and having to push my bike until I get to a place where I can balance long enough to start pedaling again. I'm pretty competent at the short steep downhills even when there are large rocks I need to go down etc. I generally find the steep over-rock descents pant-shitting until about the third one when I remember that I'm actually pretty good at them and then I enjoy the hell out of them. My mantra? Don't fuck up, don't fuck up, don't fuck up.  The couple times that I have forgotten my mantra I have gone ass over tin cups and wound up lying on the ground in a heap with my bike on top of or next to me (those would be the solid wipe outs).

Anyway, you're probably thinking: Great, Virginia. So you're not very good at mountain biking. What the hell is your point?

Good question. Here's your answer: My point is that today, as I was getting up from underneath my bike and dusting off the red dirt that was coating the left hand side of my body, I took a moment to appreciate the fact that the school where I work takes students mountain biking EVERY DAY. I take students trail running and rock climbing all the time. None of these are particularly safe sports. (Oddly enough, out of all of those rock climbing is the safest -contrary to what most people might think.)

I remember, as a child, hearing - over and over again- "safety first!" and my teachers, other students' parents, administrators, and a number of ad-campaigns would always emphasize that message. I think I even heard it bandied about at the first boarding school I worked at.*

It's not a message I agree with, it's not one that my parents really agreed with, and I think it's safe to say that it's not really a message my current place of employment agrees with either.

Let me be clear here: the wellbeing and health of my students is of the utmost importance to me and to everyone else who works at our school.

But that doesn't mean that we want them to be completely "safe."

Safety entails a complete lack of danger, which in turn entails a lack of risk. Risk taking is important. It's an important life skill, and an important part of human fulfillment. A life completely devoid of risk, to me at least, seems like a life not worth living.

Does that mean that we shouldn't wear helmets, tell people where we're going, take cell phones and med kits with us, and instruct students on the proper methods for avoiding common dangers during these activities? Not at all. Quite the opposite. I do all of those things whenever I take students out into the wilderness, even if it's only for a few hours. I think it's critical that students know how to stay as safe as reasonably possible during all of these activities.

But to be completely safe, as one would strive for if safety were truly one's FIRST priority, one shouldn't engage in those activities at all. If we really wanted to be a "safety first" school we would not take students trail running, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, or backpacking in the Grand Canyon for ten days. If safety were truly our top priority, then we would never let students out of their classes or dorm rooms. We would stay inside and talk about things instead of doing them. We would let them read about the world and watch videos and never take them out in it to see for themselves.

I suppose that's what some schools do.

My colleagues and I, however, believe that risk taking, risk management, and the kinds of self confidence and decision making skills that are derived from these "unsafe" activities are important things for young people, and adults, to learn and make a part of their lives.

I can't speak for the rest of my colleagues for this next point, but I personally believe that the most important things that we teach are taught through these kinds of risk taking and personal challenges. Yeah, it's awesome that students are learning Spanish in high school, and the subjects my colleagues teach are all important and interesting as well, but I feel like the really important stuff comes through pushing yourself to reach the rim of the Grand Canyon on the tenth day of backpacking after getting up at 4:30 in the morning in the freezing rain and covering over 3,000 feet of vertical over eight grueling miles. It comes from realizing that you can make it to the top of a hundred foot cliff with nothing but you, a rope and another person whom you are trusting with your life. It comes from realizing that you can actually run four miles without stopping even though you thought you'd never be able to, and you can do it even though those four miles are covered in cacti, steep hills, large rocks, and maybe the occasional rattlesnake. And it comes from picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and getting back on a bike even after you've just thrown yourself rather spectacularly from it's seat because you briefly forgot your mantra.

Life is about collecting experiences. It's about putting yourself in situations in which you are fully aware that you are a living, breathing, miracle of a science experiment. Not everything has to be about physical challenges, or physical risk taking. There are so many other fulfilling ways to experience the beauty that life has to offer. But I would argue that all of those moments come from some form of risk, or challenge, or at the very least putting yourself in a situation in which you might *gasp* fail. Those situations are not "safe" but they are meaningful.

Physical risk taking, and challenges are only one way to learn these lessons, but they are accessible (particularly to high school students) and they teach the lessons vividly and with clear and immediate results.

It is my hope that as a society we can take a break from worrying about "safety" and worry more about wellbeing and health instead. Take a moment to applaud risk taking, to appreciate doing things that are "crazy," and to push yourself to try something that scares the crap out of you. It doesn't have to be dangling at the top of a cliff, or hurling yourself around on a bike at high speeds, it could be as simple as dancing in public, or introducing yourself to a stranger. Take a risk, collect an experience, revel in being a living, breathing, miracle of science.

***For another look at a similar concept: check out this New Zealand newscast.

*My apologies for ending this sentence with a preposition. I ultimately decided that colloquial was the way to go for this sentence, but know that it does make me cringe a bit.


  1. I hear you and applaud. My own motto from the birth of daughter Lisa till now is, "Kids are going to do dangerous things. Help them become as good at these things as possible." Lisa swam in the Deep End before she was two. Andy (and wife Robin) were both mountain bike racers; now Robin and one of their kids plays polo; Andy is an equine vet--has been kicked by huge draft horses, etc. The kids rock climb. Among the progeny there have been broken collar bones, a shattered hip and femur, concussions, and many other lesser things; however, no amount of nay-saying on my part would have prevented them from doing things they loved. True, I live in a constant state of low-level terror--but hey, at least I know they know how to do what they do competently, which is to say "as safely as a dangerous thing can be." Huzzah to you and your school and your philosophy.

    P.S. New Zealand is a great place to practice what we are preaching. Family members who have lived there would agree.

  2. I made a subject-verb agreement mistake! I shall now commit Schoolmarm Hari kari. But I refuse to point out where it is. Some levels of shame one can't sink to.

  3. **whispers** I won't tell anyone... :-)