I am only three strides gone when I lose the puck. I don’t know how it happens. One moment, I have it, and the next it is in my skates and then gone. I look back and the thing seems a hundred feet behind, the mocking eye of the ice. I turn back to retrieve it, determined to exert my dominance once and for all over this piece of recalcitrant rubber, and I botch the crossover and fall sideways onto the ice. It is at that point that Sean passes me, deftly skating around my splayed body, puck firmly on stick.
Sean is seven years old. I am 28. On the sidelines, his mom snaps a picture.
I never intended to learn to play hockey. A serious fan of the game and sometimes-serious writer about it, I wanted to play. I wanted to play so badly it would literally hurt, a twitching kind of spasm in my arm muscles when I’d pass an outdoor rink on a sunny, frigid Montreal afternoon. Someday, I’d tell my friends with a convincing semblance of sincerity, I’ll take lessons. Someday, when I finish my degree. When I have more money. When I live closer to a rink. Someday, really. But it was a lie. The truth was, at the time I discovered hockey, I was 24 years old and rocking a 12-year-run of total inathleticism. Hockey is something to be learned in infancy. If you’re not a Timbit, you’re never going to be any good. I wasn’t about to invest a lot of time and money in something I knew I could never do well.
Most adults enjoy being good at things. We go through a learning phase of life, from perhaps birth until 20 or so, and then we enter the working phase, where we more or less give up learning. From our last graduation until our eventual retirement, most of us will do basically the same thing over and over. We might change jobs, we might learn new information, we will certainly refine our existing skills even further, but we won’t really learn to do anything new. We might dabble casually, with a class in ballroom dancing or pottery. But we’re not serious about actually learning those skills. We’re just amusing ourselves. “I just want to try something new,” we’ll tell our friends. Not learn, not do. Try. A little taste, nothing more.
So our skills stagnate. We have lots of justifications: too busy, too poor, too tired, too old. But beneath all that, it’s mostly fear. Somewhere in adolescence, we acquire a morbid terror of looking stupid. Knowing what good looks like, we are embarrassed to look bad. “Better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” Better to do nothing than do something poorly.
New skills are not sampler plates at the grocery store, snifters at a brandy tasting. They’re mountains. Huge, dark, snowcapped mountains, slopes riven with pain and failure and public embarrassment. Mountains that take years and years to climb. It will take me, for example, two or three years of practice to be able to do anything remotely useful in a hockey game. It would take a similar time to learn a new instrument. Fluency in a new language? Four years hard work, at least, to carve those new pathways into your frontal lobe. The peak is so far away it seems pointless to try.
Josh is mystified by the tongs. He holds them by one prong and bends them apart, waves the free end in the air. He pokes it at a large yellow fuzzball. The fuzzball is unresponsive. He pokes a few more times, frowns. He decides to bend the prongs back together and hit the fuzzball. This is more effective, insofar as it manages to knock said fuzzball onto the ground.
“Josh! Clean up your fuzzy!” I holler across the room. Josh dutifully picks up the ball and holds it between his fingers, perplexed. He sets it on the table. He puts the two ends of the tongs on either side and shakes. When that doesn’t work, he tries to balance the ball on one prong. He gets it perhaps two inches in the air before it tumbles down again.
This is the part where I intervene. I come up behind him. “Can I help you, Josh?” He nods, silently. I step behind him and wrap his tiny hand in my own long, nimble fingers. “Like this. Squeeze.” I say the word and press his hand around the tongs. “Lift.” Together, we pick up the fuzzball and move it across to the bowl. “Open.” I release my hand and the ball drops. “Again,” says Josh. So we do it again. We do seven or eight fuzzies, and then I leave him to try one on his own. When I look back, he’s hitting it again, this time with the bent end.
Josh will choose to ‘play’ with the tongs a hundred times this year, and for the first two or three dozen sessions, he will not successfully pick up a single fuzzball on his own. I will show him again and again how this ‘squeezing’ process is supposed to work, and still his fingers will fail him. And yet, no matter how many fuzzies he drops, no matter how many times he has to clean up his strays, no matter how many times an older kids points out how ‘easy’ it should be, he will keep choosing this game. It’s just how two-year-olds are.
At 26, I changed careers. I left academia- the great bastion of calcified, specialized skills- and became a preschool teacher. I spent my days among tiny little people who couldn’t use scissors, had no concept of left and right, and generally didn’t even know what day it is. They had no useful skills whatsoever. But they practiced hard.
The ability to form long-term memories develops sometime during the second year, so we cannot remember what it was like to be two. So let me remind you: it is practice. The most diligent, committed, obsessive practice you’ve done in your life. Practice squeezing tongs and scooping beans and stacking blocks, talking and dancing, eating and sharing. My students are so dedicated to practicing that they will risk embarrassment, injury, and adult disapproval to continue it. They don’t care if they’re wrong, they don’t care if they can’t, they have no fear of falling down or breaking or losing. They try everything, all the time, little hands in every corner of the world. They are not frustrated by failure. They are frustrated by exhaustion or hunger or restraint, but not by failure.
Neurological research makes great claims about the plasticity of two-year-old brains. They are wired to learn, they say, to pick up skills with astonishing rapidity. Adults have added this to their repertoire of excuses for not trying new things- if you didn’t learn it as a child, you’re never going to be all that good. But after a few years in the trenches with the toddlers, I don’t think it’s any miracle of two-year-old brain chemistry that makes them such terrific learners, it’s the shameless consistency of two-year-old effort.
Everything is a mountain. All the simplest things- counting to ten, jumping, pouring water- you learned them all the hard way. You spent three long, forgotten years of your life practicing these things day after day, failing almost constantly, and you laughed through it. You enjoyed every barely-individuated muscle in your tiny, awkward body; every fall, every mistake, every time-out, every mess, you giggled and grinned and got up and you tried again and again and again, and then, one day, as if by magic, there were fewer falls and less messes, and no set of tongs ever fazed you again. But it wasn’t magic. It was just practice.
When I fall, now, I think of Josh. I try to think like Josh. And I get up, snow streaked, flash a smile at Sean, and go find a new puck.