It was the middle of January, and the ski school was full. The price of private lessons was much higher than we were willing to pay. Cynthia, my wife, was obviously frustrated.
She had that look—slack cheeks, lips thinning, every few minutes a concealing hand to the forehead. It was enough to make me think of how little I had contributed to the planning for this weekend.
Let’s see. I had marked an X on my work calendar. And I had gotten out of bed, at a leisurely hour, thinking of the new skis I had bought during an end-of-season sale, while Cynthia packed food and gathered snow clothes for our three children—in addition to having coordinated with our friends, rented a house, and so on.
The one thing I could do, now that we were here without ski lessons, was volunteer for boy duty, so I did. Yet, I have to say, Cynthia did not seem overly impressed by this willingness of mine to spend a couple of hours, in a pinch, with our children.
After picking up rentals, the boys and I made our way to the beginners’ area. To the side was a rubber conveyor belt called the Magic Carpet. It carried little people and the occasional adult up the modest incline and deposited them at the top, sometimes in an awkward pile that grew with each child until the operator pressed a big red button and brought the whole thing to a shuddering halt.
My 8-year-old headed up, snowboard in hand, ready to get to work. I barely saw him for the next three hours.
The 6-year-old and I were on our own: student and teacher.
Now, my preferred pedagogical style is indirect. For instance, to teach my kids how important reading is, I read a lot. And when they come to me with questions, I just say, “Not now, buddy, I’m reading.” I wondered what the skiing equivalent would be, but nothing came to mind.
I knew Tommy had spent an hour in ski school last season, so I started by letting him show me what he had learned. He didn’t fall, but he didn’t have much control either as he sailed down this icy lump of a hill and straight into an orange mesh fence at the bottom.
I have never had ski lessons, which made it harder to teach someone else, but I did remember being shown by a friend how to “snow plow” when I took up the sport maybe 15 years ago. This I tried to show Tommy.
Although he’s strong, he couldn’t seem to keep his legs pointed inward to achieve the desired slowing effect. As I pulled him out of the mesh for the third or fourth time, his usual good humor was fading.
I thought maybe some combination of plowing and parallel skiing with turns would work for him. I gave a little demonstration. He got it immediately, but completed only one turn before pointing his skis straight down the hill and, once more, into the orange mesh fence.
I decided then to try something I had seen some other parents do with their little skiers. Tommy and I went up the Magic Carpet and I gave him the other end of one of my poles. It felt silly, like we were about to do a soft shoe together. We turned left, we turned right, and so on, but I was doing all the work.
“You have to help us turn,” I told him.
“Daddy,” he replied, “I’m trying.”
During our second run, I had to repeat myself. “Tommy, all of our weight is on me, you need to shift your weight, here to your right leg, now to your left.”
“I’m trying,” he said again. “I’m really trying so hard.”
Then he took a fall. Helping him up, I saw that he was crying.
I wanted to explain so much to him at that moment, but you can’t give a 6-year-old the perspective of a 40-year-old, not really, so I gave him the short course.
“Tommy, look at that hill by the chairlift. See all those people. You think they’re all great athletes who just know how to ski. They are not. They all learned, just like you’re doing. They all fell down, just like you. They all thought it was so hard that they weren’t going to be able to do it. But they got up, over and over they got up, and now here they are, skiing like it’s the easiest thing in the world.”
At the bottom he said he wanted to ski without me. So I waited. The Magic Carpet took him up. He made his way around the other newbies and started to come down, a wide toothless smile on his face as he completed two big turns. Then he pointed his skis downhill, picked up speed, and narrowly missed the orange mesh fence.