Planting our skis and poles into the snow so they stuck up like giant misshapen toothpicks, our little group tromped over towards the edge of the ridge. We perched along the knobby length of a log, chatting and looking out over the sparkling Uinta slopes. I think it was our TA, Wyeth, who first asked me if I needed some water or a granola bar. I was conspicuously free of any kind of pack for an afternoon of cross-country skiing. Anxious to practice faster skiing, I’d skied ahead of my friend with whom I was supposed to swap carrying a backpack with water and snacks for the both of us—only to find out a mile or two later that this group wasn’t planning on going the same route as the other half of the class left behind. And my friend had the bag.
Wyeth’s question prompted three or four of my classmates to immediately offer extra granola bars and water. Slightly abashed but silently relieved, I accepted them. I’ve thought about this moment several times in the years that have since elapsed. Our wilderness survival instructor was the ultimate preparation guru, the man who drilled into our heads how to dress in layers to accommodate any weather, the man who taught us how to build sleep-worthy snow caves in case of an emergency, the man who randomly tested us with demands to see our three separate ways of making fire (to this day, I still carry various lighters with me whenever I venture into the mountains). And here I was, with a semester of that training and yet no water, no food, no supplies of any kind, skiing around the backcountry for several hours.
I think I probably mumbled awkwardly about having planned to share everything with Ashley—I’m the type that needs to explain that I’m not a total idiot—but no one was looking down their nose at me. With smiles and “no problems,” they shared what they had and didn’t think twice, as far as I could tell. What surprises me looking back is how readily they offered assistance when they knew me so little. I had spent much of the semester quietly observing the class. I participated in writing exercises and class discussions enough to show that I was paying attention and doing the work, but I flitted around the edges of the easy rapport that developed amongst my peers. I’ve always been a fly-on-the-wall kind of person: happy to watch others talk and interact and keep my thoughts to myself. So it surprises me how warmly my peers folded me into that group that day, considering that I was probably little more than a name to them.
How they felt about the quiet girl tagging along, I can’t say. But their ready help changed something for me. Some block melted out of my way, and I spent the rest of the afternoon laughing and chatting and asking questions of these people I’d watched and thought about all semester. In extending their unchecked charity, they made me feel more part of the group than I’d felt in the three months leading up to this trip. They didn’t bat an eye at it, but their kindness is etched into my memory—one of those experiences I know I should never forget.
Maybe I should share this story with my own students now so that they understand why I emphasize community as one of the central tenets of my class. Community is more than a teacher tool to get people talking, more than a participation grade at the end of a semester, more than a coming together of minds to engage intellectually. Community is the feeling of receiving a granola bar—a granola bar you shouldn’t have needed had you done your part—and knowing in that sound of crinkling wrapper that there are people who see you. People who don’t need anything from you to be kind. People who will be your friend if you will let them. And knowing that people can be like that—well, maybe that’s exactly what we all need to know.