I can’t remember Laverne’s face, only her legs. But that makes sense, because standing tall, I came up to her knees. I was two years old and I adored my preschool teacher. Under her guidance, my entire class aspired to greatness, which we defined as climbing to the top of the jungle gym. One by one, the other kids triumphed. Finally, I was the only child who hadn’t summited.
Every day, I arrived at school and gazed at that jungle gym — majestic and imposing, beckoning and terrifying. The bars towered enormous, a soaring five feet tall. I felt a powerful need to climb. But every time I stepped toward the challenge, my fear steered me back to the safety of the swings. One morning, Laverne found me at the base of the grand structure, staring up. I was verbal for my age, so she knelt next to me and asked what was holding me back.
“It’s too big.”
“Are you scared?”
“Well, here’s an idea.” Laverne spoke slowly, giving me time to keep up. “You can be scared without being brave, but you can’t be brave without being scared.”
I replayed her words in my head several times. After a minute, I nodded. “I’m ready to be scared and brave, not just scared.” I stepped forward, then hesitated.
Laverne took my hand. “Let’s do it together.”
I remember the next few minutes as a series of disjointed freeze frames — the cold against my hands as I gripped the bars, the strain as I pulled myself upward. A part of my memory confused me for a long time: a crystal clear view of a smooth, medium brown surface, under a lattice of white. I couldn’t make sense of it until I realized that as I climbed, Laverne climbed next to me. When I looked at her for a shot of courage, I was looking at her brown legs under white fishnet stockings.
My next memory is the sound of my classmates cheering. I turned my head slowly, astonished at the splendor of the view. I saw a red ball behind a shed, a white sock in a pile of leaves, a spiderweb in a nearby tree. I beamed at the sweeping panorama brimming with hidden treasures. The moment was fine and at two years old, I was changed forever.
To this day, I always feel a warm confidence when I think of jungle gyms, spiderwebs and fishnet stockings. Although I didn’t have the language to frame the feelings when I was two years old, I understood on a visceral level the value of fear as an essential part of courage. I experienced first-hand how a great teacher can bring students to heights they never thought possible. In a place too deep for words, I knew that when a girl reaches the top of her world, she’ll never be the same.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a blogger and author of two novels. Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, written in reaction to seeing gay teens bullied in high school, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade. Her second novel, Tightwire, continues to follow Caroline, as a rookie psych intern treating her first patient. Amy blogs about a variety of subjects including parenting, LGBTQ+ and a Rolling Stones concert. Amy also collaborates with educators who use her novels in their curriculum. To learn more about Amy, visit her website.