Follow Through

I wanted to teach at Rowland Hall/St. Mark's School from the first day we moved to Salt Lake City for my husband Tim's medical residency at the University of Utah. I sent my resume to the main office along with a letter to every person in a position to hire me at the school, and waited, very impatiently, to hear back. Once a week or so, I'd drive by the school and picture myself walking in through the front doors, books in my arms, a bag of lesson plans slung over my shoulder. On the way home from the store, I'd look at Tim with That Look on my face, and he'd say, "You want to drive by the school again?" He gets me. When I'm focused on a goal, I don't just write it down or dream about it, I visualize it, making the goal real for myself until it becomes real for everyone else or I set my sights on something else. 

Yeah, I'm a handful. I described Tim as a "goddamn miracle of a person" to an old friend yesterday, and it's in these moments, when I'm in peak manifestation mode that he earns his marital stripes. 

I was hired at RHSM 48 hours before the first day of school to teach British Literature, and became full-time later on that year when another teacher took maternity leave. I could not have hoped for a more fulfilling and idyllic first couple of years as a teacher. 

I knew Caroline Gleich was special from the moment she walked into my classroom. She was dreadlocked, makeup-free, and supremely Caroline in a culture that tends toward conformity and a meticulous, "just so" aesthetic. Caroline isn't "just" anything. She's always been bigger than her small form, a force of nature in her ability to manifest her particular, often endearingly peculiar, vision of the world. 

After graduation, she became a professional athlete and sports model. She wanted to spend her life outdoors, skiing, mountaineering and paddling, so she created a financially viable way to live that life. Today, she travels around the world doing her Caroline Thing while professional photographers follow behind, snapping away in an attempt to capture her magic on film.  

The camera loves Caroline, and very little of Caroline gets lost in translation. She glows, even when reduced to two dimensions on a magazine cover, and her Instagram feed is a testament to that glow. She has over 130k followers, most of whom admire and envy her adventures living a life of adventure and wonder. 

One follower, however, has decided that Caroline is too pretty and too female to deserve the life she's worked so hard to achieve, and has stalked her for the past few years, berating, dismissing, and threatening her.  

Caroline, predictably, will have none of it. 

Besides, she's too busy to be distracted by the haters. You see, a few years ago, Caroline decided to ski every line described in the book The Chuting Gallery, author Andrew McLean's collection of the most difficult, inaccessible chutes and couloirs in the Wasatch mountains. As the threats, taunts, and bile, continued, Caroline grew stronger, more sure in her own power and less afraid of his threats.  She just kept putting one foot in front of the other, one chute at a time, leaving the fear and doubt and dismissive trolls behind her.  

It's been fifteen years since I taught Caroline, but we've kept in touch. I wrote about her in The Gift of Failure sports chapter, and then, last week, REI released Follow Through, a documentary short about Caroline's quest to ski The Chuting Gallery lines in the Wasatch Mountains. I thought the kids in my inpatient drug and alcohol rehab classroom would admire her pluck, and the topic of personal goals might make for an interesting writing prompt. 

Most of the kids in my class have been berated, dismissed, and threatened repeatedly by the trolls in their lives. They are familiar with the exhausting weight of low expectations, and hardly anyone thinks to ask them about their life goals. I was going to ask them to write about their goals, then ask them to write down the specific steps they would have to take to achieve them.

The importance of articulating goals in words can't be underestimated; one study found that when we write our goals down, we are 42 percent more likely to achieve them. Sure, it was a small study, but other studies have shown that writing down fears can ease anxiety and increase performance. Yet others posit that hope can often be the X factor that allows kids to change their present and manifest a better future. Hope. Goals. Dreams. Call this aspirational, visionary mumbo-jumbo what you will, when a child feels he or she has the power to change her life, she's less likely to feel helpless, depressed, and afraid, and much more likely to achieve her goals. 

And so, with Caroline's help, my students took that first uphill step toward their dreams. After we watched Caroline check off the final Chuting Gallery line on her list, each student wrote a few pages about his or her one big goal. They wrote about the details of that dream, what a day living within that dream life would look, sound, taste, and smell like. 

So many kids live in a world of "no," of limits and proscribed futures and pressure to conform to their parents' narrow and exclusive vision of happiness and success. Many of the students I teach at the rehab don't have a plan for their future beyond their next drunk, let alone a plan for escaping a future of group homes and prison. They self-medicate the pain of their hopelessness with booze and smoke and pills. Above all, they are scared, and can't imagine anyone else doubts their place in the world the way they do. 

But then, there's Caroline, her skis balanced on a narrow ledge of rock and ice at the top of the chute she fears most of all, where her half-brother Martin died under an avalanche. Her breath comes in gasps of exhilaration and fear as she pokes at the snow just below her with a pole, testing its structure and integrity. Her breaths grow louder, she reassures herself "This is fun," and she drops into the unknown.

Caroline's helmet cam captures one hesitant, uncertain turn, then two, before she surrenders--to her fear, the slope, and the unpredictable will of the snow in the mountains she loves. The jagged rush of her breath slows to match the graceful arc of her turns through the powder.

The goals my students write about are fairly pedestrian as compared to Caroline's alpine adventures around the world. One yearns for a family of her own, another describes a trade job he's dreamed about for years. They describe these futures, hesitantly at first, hardly daring to hope, then fall into their rhythm as a rush of words and images begin to fill the page. 

Thank you, Caroline, for showing my students how to dream bigger than they've ever dared. Thank you for teaching them to have faith in themselves as they dare to make that first, frightening turn into the future.