by Lindsey Rudibaugh
Once upon a time, Travis got a haircut he really liked. Then, as he reports happens too often, the woman who gave him this great haircut told him she was leaving that particular salon. He sat there in her chair, taking in this bad news and thinking about how haircuts in his life are a lot like mayonnaise, and he nearly missed the silver lining that the hair dresser shared as she continued talking. “I’m going out on my own. I’m going to do house visits now to cut people’s hair.” To Travis, this was a welcome twist. I can get a good haircut without even leaving my apartment? Let’s do this! He got her information, then went about life as his short, scissor-fresh tresses slowly turned shaggy and began to look unfit for an office-bound professional. About a month passed and it was time to call Emily.
Emily arrived to Travis’ downtown Alliance apartment with her kids in tow and they settled into the couch to watch cartoons. She made small talk as she got started on the haircut, but quickly broached the subject that she clearly couldn’t stop thinking about. “How do you live here? Aren’t you scared? There are so many people walking around.”
Hmmm. No, we weren’t experiencing a zombie apocalypse that would provide reasonable explanation for feeling terror at having people walk past your apartment. No, there was no known gang activity in the area. Emily had seemingly voluntarily started a job that required her to go to relative strangers’ houses, so no, there was no reason to suspect she suffered from anthropophobia (fear of humans). Oh. Wait. There it is. She’s not afraid of humans generally, just perhaps the sector of the population represented by those walking in our vicinity upon Emily’s arrival. Emily, it would seem, was a little bit racist.
I share this story for a few reasons, but each shares a central theme: Fear. One of my mantras (I may have too many of these – I worry I’m starting to sound like one of those pull-chord dolls that talks in sound bites. Or like someone’s grandpa.) is “I will not live in fear.” I will not live in fear of new experiences, of new places, of trying new foods, of people who are unlike me. To say I will not live in fear is perhaps an oversimplification or simply untrue. Of course I feel fear; I choose to acknowledge it, call it what it is, then refuse to let it dictate my life. I have not always lived this way.
When I was very small I used to stare at the washer and dryer in our family bathroom. In fear. I dreaded the day I would have to learn how to use them. It seemed inevitable and looming. Would I be able to measure out the right amount of soap? How would I know how much was needed? Would I melt my stuffed animals’ eyes in the dryer? Would I overflow the washer? Would I fall in and drown? Or get spun around until I was dizzy and puking and then we’d have to start the wash cycle all over again? Dread. Fear. Dread.
In 4th grade a teacher sent me to a storage closet to get… something that I don’t remember and is unimportant to this story. I got to the closet and for whatever reason my eye was drawn to the very top shelf where an ancient-looking box sat. On its side, written in sharpie and all caps, were the words “DRIVER’S ED BOOKS”. A shiver went down my spine. Someday people will expect me to learn how to drive. What if I can’t reach the pedals? What if I run over one of our cats? My mom would cry for days. Cars are so big, how the hell can I be expected to control one? (Fourth grade is also when I decided to try out profanity and found that I quite liked it, though I often only said bad words in my mind for fear that an adult would overhear and be disappointed in me.)
The point is, when I was young, the idea of learning to do adult things sparked real terror deep inside me. I wasn’t one of those kids who watched the adults or even the older kids and longed to do what they could do. I was happy being a kid, reading my Baby-Sitters Club books, solving crimes before Nancy Drew figured them out, and playing in the woods. Eventually, I started to want to do the things the strong female characters in my books did: have people trust me to do important things, help people solve problems, start a business. Without realizing it, I stopped being fearful and started to do things. I no longer even thought to wonder if I actually could.
This empowered version of me is the one that stuck around throughout high school and college, making me twitch in annoyance when people said things like, “You want to try out for cheerleading? So many girls are trying out, you’ll never make it” and “Why would you want to study abroad?! You could die and no one there would care about you!” or, despite several incident-free trips abroad that I felt demonstrated my ability to handle myself, “Don’t drink the water! Don’t go out after dark! Don’t eat fresh fruit!” That’s a joke, right? You want me to go to Costa Rica and not eat the endless buffet of fresh pineapple? My favorite was when people suggested I shouldn’t go to a Spanish-speaking country because people might talk about me right in front of me and I wouldn’t know what they were saying. What a limiting way to live, I thought. In fear. Fear of failure, fear of bodily harm (which is sometimes warranted, but often preventable with a little knowledge and caution), fear of the unknown, fear of ridicule that might happen but you won’t know if it does. I really didn’t grasp how pervasive this is until I was in my first job out of college, teaching high school Spanish. I was 22 and organizing a field trip to Pittsburgh. The paperwork was in order, the fees were paid, and we were loading up the bus. The more experienced teacher I had asked to co-chaperone approached with a group of other teachers. One of them asked, “So, you’re really going to do this, huh?”
“You’re going to take a busload of high school students to the big city.”
Well, we’re driving to the city but then we’re getting on a boat where we’ll spend the whole evening….
My co-chaperone chimed in with “She’s fearless.” Wait, I thought. I’m doing something brave? Should I be fearful? What am I missing?! Up to that moment, I’d felt only enthusiasm for this trip. I felt prepared. I was excited. My students had signed a conduct contract that they’d drafted themselves. They were going to salsa dance on a boat with high schoolers from other schools and they were going to try new foods (because that was in the conduct contract– you try everything unless you’re allergic). They were excited. Moments before pulling out of the school parking lot, I come to find out that field trips aren’t really part of the school culture because the teachers don’t trust the students to be civilized/careful/responsible/respectful in new environments.
I’m glad I didn’t know until it was too late. We went, we felt great about our salsa moves, we cumbia-ed badly, we tried marzipan, and we came home unscathed. (Aside from the exchange student who had decided that part of her U.S. experience should include piercing her tongue…which she reportedly did in the school bathroom right before getting on the bus.) I learned some valuable things through this experience. First, show high school students – or anyone for that matter – some respect and they just might return the favor. Second, I could not, would not let fear shrink my world and keep me from doing things that could be great. I had never thought of myself as fearless (remember the dryer and the washer and the driver’s ed books) but if fearless is what I had to be to create meaningful experiences for myself and my students, then fearless was what I would strive for. Or more accurately, at least not paralyzed by fear.
So, this brings us back to Emily who was afraid of the people walking around our predominantly African American neighborhood when she came to cut Travis’ hair. To her credit, let me point out that she came anyway. Fear did not stop her from bringing her kids and working to build her business. (Maybe she read Baby-Sitters Club books, too.) As one of my very smart college students pointed out on the first day of our class together, fear of each other, of entire groups of people, comes from ignorance. As such, knowledge, understanding, and experience are its best antidotes. (I may have done some paraphrasing there.) I was afraid of doing laundry, and then I learned how to do it. Turns out, the drowning hazard is actually slim. I was afraid of driving, and for a while I did it quite badly, but now I feel no flutters of nerves when I start the car. I was nervous that people in Costa Rica would roll their eyes at my imperfect Spanish or that taxi drivers would try to charge me exorbitant rates, assuming that I was a rich gringa. Taxi drivers are actually my favorite people to talk to in Spanish-speaking places. They have great recommendations for places to explore, and they’re happy to answer my questions about random Spanish vocabulary. When we are brave enough to let experience replace our fear of the unknown, our worlds grow, our skills grow, our circles of support grow, our capacity to feel empathy and love grows, which means (research shows) the love and empathy we receive grows. Sometimes we get stung a little (ex: some shrunken laundry, two totaled cars, and a Costa Rican pickpocket), but WOW, the pros far outweigh the cons. I hope that Emily got home from Travis’ haircut and reflected on the fact that she came to our neighborhood and nothing scary happened. Maybe she’ll try it again someday, and maybe she’ll eventually let her experience alter her beliefs.
One more thought to share. Our college students talk with trepidation about “adulting”, about entering the buffer-free zone of life after graduation. Looking back, one might say that fear of adulting was what I experienced as I sat on the edge of the bathtub staring at the washer and dryer. Our hope is that Tenderfoot facilitates experiences that help students live through fear rather than in fear, navigating their way toward empowered, capable, open-minded adults who fill their own lives and others’ with meaningful experiences. In the meantime, we’re trying to model all of the above. We’re getting married next month, and many people have half-jokingly suggested that perhaps we’d like to wait until after our hike to say I do. We’re attempting to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, and people keep suggesting perhaps we’d like to just do the trail in shorter sections over time so we can keep our jobs and our comfy house. We’re launching a non-profit, and we often hear some version of “Why not just start a business and charge people to come stay at your homestead? It would be so much easier financially.” Absolutely, all of this caution is worth considering, and we’ve had lengthy conversations about these valid points. But we keep coming back to the fact that, while there are easier paths forward, all of the reasons to leave the one we’re on are rooted in fear. We feel that fear, we let it make us more careful and more calculated, but we’re not letting it rob us of incredible experiences.
Note: In case you got this far and are still curious about why, in Paragraph 1, Travis was comparing haircuts and mayonnaise, I’ll explain: He continually rides a roller coaster of anticipation and then disappointment with both. He claims that good haircuts are hard to come by and when he finds one, he gets excited, tells the hairdresser they now have a loyal customer, and then inevitably learns that this talented person is going to be moving/quitting/otherwise unavailable for future haircuts. Similarly, mayonnaise is one of Travis’ favorite condiments and he asks for it on perhaps every sandwich he’s ever ordered in a restaurant. I can attest that it nearly always is left off. Inexplicable.
Another note: Emily’s name was changed in the hopes that, if she ever somehow stumbles upon this blog post and recognizes herself, she feels protected and respected enough to not feel like this was a public shaming, and can instead take to heart our genuine hope for her continued growth.