Features and Occasionals

Aging Gracefully: Lessons in Courage

By Debbie Leaman

Sometimes the saying is true: We teach what we most need to learn.

I’ve taken ski lessons since the age of seven, and have always hated them. I’ve been led down chutes, over precipices and through the trees, and have panicked more than once. While I love to ski, and want to improve, I struggle to keep my fear in check.

So why, at the age of 57 did I become a ski instructor?

Five years ago, when my husband decided to become a part-time ski instructor, I was happy to stay home on Sundays, especially when the temperature slid below zero. After his first season, some instructors, including my husband, suggested I become an instructor, too. “You’d be great!” they all said.

“No way, It’s so not me.”

They persisted. I love to be wanted, and if they thought I could do it…. Then I remembered what I hate about ski lessons: hard-core instructors, feeling captive, and not knowing where I’ll end up on the mountain. But I was curious…. Could I do that?

The following season, I realized I’d been skiing for 50 years and wasn’t getting any younger. I was afraid of getting hurt. I didn’t want to stop skiing; Iwasn’t sure I wanted to continue, either. But there was another option to retain my passion: I could give back…. I could teach.

Teach? I could be the ski instructor I’d always wanted—someone compassionate who understands fear. I wouldn’t be captive, I’d be in charge.

By December, I was in instructor training and quickly realized it didn’t matter that I’d been skiing for over five decades, I had no clue how to teach it. My head was spinning with information. Was I too old for this?

Then I got my resort jacket and name badge, and it was official; I was a ski instructor.

That first year, I fought my anxiety as my husband and I drove up the canyon every Sunday. I was quiet. No, I was a bitch. Not knowing what my day would look like was more unpredictability than I could handle. Would I be teaching five-year-olds, teens or adults? How would I get two squirming kids on the chairlift at once? What if I pull my back out? I obsessed about safety—the students’ and my own.

Within weeks, my first worst fear came true when I observed a class of adults learning to turn. One student had skied years ago and assured us she was fine riding the beginner lift herself. She took the chair in front of me, but didn’t stand up in time, and as the chair made its way around, she panicked and jumped. Her agonizing shriek sliced through me. She’d broken her pelvis. As the swarm of ski patrollers descended, I wondered, why the hell am I doing this?

A few weeks later, I co-taught a class of fourth graders from Ski Utah—a program where kids from all over the Salt Lake valley ski free at local resorts. For most of them, it’s the only chance they’ll ever get to experience skiing. In the chaotic tangle of 10-year-olds, skis and errant mittens, Isabelle and Maddie stood out. Isabelle, timid and afraid, told me, “I can’t do this. I’m not strong.” Skiing backwards, I guided her down the gentle hill. She kept falling and I kept picking her up. She wanted to quit but I urged her to try again. “I can’t do this,” she repeated. “You’re doing it!” I said. When we reached the bottom, I pointed up the hill. “Look what you just skied!” But she sat on the snow, dispirited. She was done; she didn’t care that it takes time to learn something new. Her fear had won over and she felt like she’d failed. I was once that little girl. Maybe I still am.

I trekked back up to help the next in line, Maddie, who lunged for my goggles. “I want these,” she said, pulling them from my face. Then, she grabbed my poles. “What are these? I want them!” I immediately chucked my poles to the side to avoid someone getting stabbed in the eye, but a few minutes later, Maddie was swinging them around. Then she dropped them and took off on her skis down the hill. “Maddie, stop!” I yelled, but realized she didn’t know how. As she gained speed, I was sure she was going to plow into somebody or end up in the parking lot. I raced down to help her, but when she saw me, she crouched on the back of her skis, laughing with pure joy. Finally, she fell over to her side. “Again!” she said, “I want to do that again!” And she did. Many times.

I’ve often thought of those two girls; they became my teachers: Isabelle, self-critical and ruled by fear; Maddie, unafraid and willing to go for it.

This past season, my husband was hired to teach skiing in a different canyon. Separate resorts? Weren’t we doing this to be together? I stayed put, but often wondered why I was still teaching. Despite my ambivalence, I went through additional training to become certified as a ski instructor and child specialist. I’ve taught over 160 students, from the ages of four to 70, making sure that they’ve all felt safe and comfortable in my lessons. Some days were great, others were awful. But when a frightened student who’s never skied before can stop and turn with confidence by the end of the first class, it’s worth it.

I never thought this could be a job for someone pushing 60, but with a handful of 70- and even 80-year-old instructors, I’ve been proven wrong. I love the camaraderie among the instructors—a mix of tattooed 20-somethings, mid-lifers, and AARP members, all of us there to help others learn to ski. I love teaching, meeting and connecting with students, and comparing notes with my husband at the end of our teaching days. I love being part of something bigger, to feel young, physically competent and relevant.

Teaching skiing also tested my limits. Sometimes, no matter how many hand warmers I stuff into my mittens, my thumbs are numb from the cold. I have to be up the canyon early, whether it’s 10 below zero and snowing or raining. I’ve taught adults three times my body weight who can’t stand on skis, students who end up in the woods, crying children, and teens with an attitude. I’ve made pleading emergency phone calls to my physical therapist for back spasms, and I’ve realized that maybe I’m not one of those constitutionally tough women who can handle, or even wants to handle, the physical demands of the job.

Still, because I’ve pushed far beyond what I thought I was capable of doing, I’ve changed. I’m more willing to take on new challenges on and off the slopes, channeling Maddie and not letting my inner-Isabelle rule me. I’ve realized that stepping out of my comfort zone is something I have to remind myself to do, especially as I age. Just show up, be flexible and do the best I can, fear and all.

This year, I’ve decided to take a break from teaching skiing. I need to protect my back and reduce my self-imposed stress. But maybe it’ll be like childbirth. Come the winter, I’ll forget the pain and show up for another season.

Debbie Leaman looks forward to skiing when she feels like it and the weather is just right. To find out about her upcoming Creative Aging writing workshops visit: DebbieLeaman.com

This article was originally published on November 30, 2017.