I’ve had a handful of learning experiences in my life that have stayed with me in a truly significant way. Some occurred in the classroom with teachers or professors and some in the outdoors with coaches or counselors. In the summer of 1979, as a camper at Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, Massachusetts, I had one of these experiences.
The swimming pool at camp was set in the dunes steps away from the ocean. I can still remember the shape of it. A long rectangle with an oddly shaped deep end off to one side, all set snugly in the warm sands of the cape. That summer I was learning how to dive. A cautious swimmer, I remember being afraid of my face entering the water before any other part of my body. That scared me, and diving was a real mental hurdle.
One weekend afternoon after activity sessions, I attempted this feat. I stood at the edge of the pool, my skinny, pre-teen body hunched over the side, my shoulders at my ears. I wasn’t relaxed and wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get into the water head first. Maybe not in the next hour, maybe not today. I wasn’t sure how I was going to achieve this on my own.
I remember Larry B. being there. He was a counselor from the boys unit from my age group, and a veteran on the staff. Although big in stature, he was a gentle teacher. “I’ll help,” he said. He walked over and grabbed my body from behind and held me around my middle, waiting for me to be ready. He was strong and I felt confident. He wasn’t going to drop me. He patiently held me as I extended myself out over the lanes until my body curved over the pool and my fingertips touched the water. He waited. I trusted him. I felt the arc of my body in this position and felt I was doing it, preparing how one prepares for a dive, feeling that sensation of reaching out, stretching out and knowing my head would follow my arms right into the water. I said I was ready and he let go. I went in, probably fell in, and remembered, that it hadn’t been as bad as I thought. All that build-up in my head. I’d done it. My first dive.
What I remember most is the feeling of being patiently held until I was ready. Of a teacher knowing where I was and meeting me right there. Understanding what I needed, and knowing how to transfer his confidence in me to mine in myself. How to really help someone learn. I’ve told friends of this story and we talk about how this experience represents such a literal example of Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” or scaffolding (the difference between what the learner can do with help and without). It remains one of the most significant and meaningful learning moments in my life. It has affected how I teach—not forcing others into things they aren’t ready for, but aiming to provide that calm, steady support I was so fortunate to experience on that day back in 1979. I’m ever thankful to Larry for being there, and for helping me to help myself.