The sun was beating down on me but I didn't notice it in that moment. I was using every ounce of my concentration to put one foot in front of the other as I ascended 2000 ft towards the mountain pass. My thoughts were swirling. "This is really hard." "I am so tired." "Maybe I am not strong enough." I don't think I can do this." "This is too hard." With those last two phrases my thoughts transitioned to messages of defeat. In that moment I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I thought for a second about giving up. I stopped in my tracks. I looked around and soaked in the surrounding beauty. I reminded myself that I chose to do this. I forced a smile onto my face...a gritted teeth, forced lip curl, strained, scary looking smile. The day before this backpacking trip I read a research article that said when you force a smile on to your face it begins to shift your mood into a more positive state. I took a deep breath and told myself, "This is hard and you can do it!" I reminded myself how beautiful the view would be from the top and how proud I would feel for pushing through this struggle. I began to feel a little better.
I survived what could have been a pretty ugly meltdown. No one wants to see a 44 year old woman crying on the side of mountain. I felt happy to have escaped my adult temper tantrum. As the happiness was sinking in my brain went on a quick, tangential journey..."frustration....temper tantrum...JJ." I immediately envisioned JJ's sweet face...which wasn't always so sweet. JJ, a six year old from my last school, spent a fair portion of his time with me following his temper tantrums. I felt an instant sense of empathy for JJ. During his first grade year JJ experienced countless moments of frustration that led to bad choices like hitting, kicking, or pushing a friend. I thought about how scary it can be to experience those out of control feelings..like I had just felt. I drifted back to my own thoughts.
How did I want to be treated in my moment of frustration? Who would I want to see ? What would I want that person to say to me? The answer was easy. I would want someone who was patient, calm, spoke to me in a soothing voice, and believed in me. I would want someone who could show me compassion.
JJ needed a lot of compassion. When he was at his peak moments of frustration he didn't need a lecture, he needed a hug. He needed someone who could help him calm down and then teach him strategies for regulating his behavior. He needed someone who could help him understand how his choices impacted others and help him understand that when he engaged in unexpected behaviors other kids didn't know what to think. In my moment of frustration I was able to self regulate. I was able to stop, take a few deep breaths and then engage in positive self talk. I was able to draw on past experiences of success and know that if I didn't give up, I was going to experience a deep sense of accomplishment as a result of my own self determination.
I pictured JJ and reflected on some of the conversations we had together. I remembered him feeling so mad and out of control, and I remembered hugging him while he cried and calmed himself down. I thought of his strength and I continued on with the switchbacks. One step in front of the other. I repeatedly told myself "I can do this" and I forced a smile onto my face, gritted teeth and all. It's not often that I experience these moments of pure frustration as an adult so when I do recognize I am on the verge of having a meltdown I think of my former students...JJ trying to sit still on the carpet, Edith trying to read all of the words on the page of her book, William trying to formulate thoughts and get those ideas down on paper...and the list goes on. Each of these students are worthy of adult compassion and deserve someone to take the time to recognize their struggle and celebrate their successes.
I reached the summit and it was breathtaking. As I stood there, filled with pride, I celebrated each of JJ's success from the last year. I remembered each day he came running up to me to tell me he had a good day or came by my office to visit me with friends. In that moment I knew that the pure joy that I felt standing at 11,600 ft, was the same joy JJ felt when he worked through his frustration without crying out, name calling, or hitting a classmate.
I smiled and started the long walk down the other side of the pass.