As times get tough, remember the girl on the hill

Posted March 20, 2009, at 10:30 p.m.

It is often said that one of the most important duties parents must accomplish is to give their children wings.

Of course moms and dads need to keep offspring safe while children are in the nest, but they must also prepare them to leave it. If this is done well, that first fledgling flight from the safety of home endows a child with skills to move easily past all of the predictable milestones of life: going to school and summer camp, attending college, getting married, and more. It also provides a gift in unpredictable and challenging times — the invaluable treasure of a sense of self.

When I was barely 5 years old, my mother gave me that gift by allowing me to walk up a single hill. At the time — with schools filled to bursting with baby boomers — I was one pupil in an overflow kindergarten class held in a city-owned house far from the larger school campus. Located at the top of a big hill, that house was neither close to my own home nor on the school bus route so my mother drove me to kindergarten daily.

But I wanted desperately to walk to school! I begged my mother to allow this until one day, at last, she relented. Today I have little doubt that she secretly watched my safe progress on that glorious morning when she let me climb that hill, but at the time I was convinced I was all on my own. In my favorite red shoes, tied up with red shoelaces, too, I strode to my school with joy. Along the way, I saw all the details that one never sees while riding in a car: the cracks in the sidewalk in which small tufts of grass struggled to grow, the shapes of the stones in someone’s retaining wall, the bees buzzing in the clover at the edge of a front yard.

This was eye-opening enough, but filled with exhilaration about being a big girl who could walk to school alone, I also realized how very big that hill was! It took so much longer than it did in Mom’s car to reach the top of it. Rather than daunting me, the length of that hill excited me. Its very hugeness made the whole enterprise an adventure. It was then that I experienced a sort of intense awareness so keenly that it made me stop and stand still. I knew, I just knew that this moment would stay with me for the rest of my life, that it was unforgettable, that I could return to it whenever I needed to feel right about myself.

That may seem an unusual insight for a small child, and yet it has proved to be true. Whenever life delivers a knockout blow, that moment remains, ever reliable, ever mine. I am always the girl on the huge hill, wide-eyed at a familiar landscape seen anew, and exhilarated at a challenge that turns out to be bigger than expected. I can always return to that moment in girlhood and feel safe within myself.

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