I’m not much good and certainly don’t have movie star muscles (yet… a girl can dream), but it’s the most fun I’ve ever had exercising, so we’re going to call it a win. Bouldering always looked like something I could do, in theory, so I bit the bullet and joined a gym this summer.

I’ve gotten used to velcro shoes, chalk dust on my pants and hands and steering wheel, and that mildly terrifying feeling of a foot slipping fifteen feet in the air. But what I can’t get used to is the watching. Gyms in general are weird in this way. You’re there doing your own thing, surrounded by other people doing their own thing, everyone patently trying to ignore each other but also definitely sneaking quick looks at how many sets of crunches that guy is doing or whether the elderly woman on the treadmill is going to trip over her untied shoelace. But the bouldering gym has a different sort of watching culture. You can’t climb nonstop for an hour, so in between routes it’s natural to sit for a few minutes or grab some water or ponderously study the wall. And, of course, to watch other climbers. I’m new and mostly technique-less, so the ease with which fingers grasp tiny divots in a hold or the power of a leap can be mesmerizing. I love watching here because it’s the easiest way to learn. 

What I don’t love is the feeling of being watched. Every time I make an awkward move or my legs start to shake or I fall flat on my butt on the mat, I imagine ten sets of eyes boring holes in my back. It’s a mild embarrassment, if that’s even the right word—like when you can’t type anything correctly if someone’s looking over your shoulder, physically or digitally. Am I being hypersensitive? Probably. Climbers are nice people. The judgement I feel is unfounded. But it’s strong enough to send me to the least busy sections of the wall, and I revel in these summer days when I can arrive just after opening and have whole areas to myself. It’s in those moments, when I’m alone, that I’m willing to try a difficult route where I might fall after just a few moves or fail to even find a feasible way to start. My fear of looking foolish is gone when there’s no one watching. If a tree falls in the forest and all that.

It’s a little weird that I, of all people, feel nervous being watched. Being watched is literally my job. I stand in front of a room of teenagers every day and specifically ask them to watch me. Watch me annotate this poem, punctuate this sentence, empathize with this character. So why is it so awkward for me to climb a wall in front of strangers? I think it’s because I’m not good at it. I’m pretty used to being good at things. I have no problem with people watching me cook or knit or play a board game—things I’m good at—but if I feel a neighbor observing my yard work efforts, I retreat to the back of the house. In the classroom, I know what I’m doing. Sure, I misspeak or fumble with technology, but these mistakes don’t feel like falling off the wall. I have some sort of capital built up with students, but these strangers at the gym rarely see me succeed.

This climbing experience has taught me something, of course. Fear of failure and being humbled by a new task are nothing groundbreaking, but they felt new for me this summer. I suddenly had a personal example for the section in education textbooks that encourages us to make our classrooms comfortable places for failure. Who would ever be afraid to answer a teacher’s question? I used to wonder. I knew it was someone who doesn’t know the answer in theory, but I’d never really experienced that. I’ve always been pretty good at school. Plus, many of the things I’ve learned—writing, cooking, crisis counseling, teaching—I’ve been able to practice in private or low-risk training situations, away from much of the anxiety that comes with failing in front of a crowd.

So this summer, I’m thankful for a place to become more comfortable with messing up, and I hope I can find ways to make that space for others. That could mean setting up a classroom atmosphere that welcomes dissent, where there aren’t wrong answers so much as lots of different right ones. It could mean giving a chance to some plan I don’t think will work very well—or, actually, just not expecting it to fail in the first place. It could mean not holding a previous mistake against someone. And it definitely means falling off the wall a few more times.

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