It's not about the angles

March 13, 2019


We moved to New Hampshire when I was in my early thirties and our first winter was extraordinarily snowy, even for northern New England (see photo). It did not take long for me to figure out that if we were going to live here, I needed to not just tolerate, but really enjoy, snow. So a few years later, when my youngest son was three or four, I decided to learn to ski.


For the record, I had two previous experiences on skis. One was in high school on a youth group trip to a mountain in North Carolina whose name I no longer recall. I spent at least an hour trying to put on my boots, then I rode the chair lift exactly once. Having no idea how to get off at mid-mountain as I was supposed to, I found myself at the top of the hill on a black diamond trail. (The designation probably didn’t mean much – the mountain was in North Carolina – but I had zero idea what I was doing.) Within moments, I wiped out, flung my poles in a couple of directions and lost a ski (I later learned the technical term for flinging your equipment all over the mountain in an epic fall: yard sale!). Because this was the eighties and skis did not yet have built-in breaks, that lost ski careened most of the way down the mountain. I remember the long trudge down and sobbing in the bathroom.


My second time on skis was with my husband’s family at Seven Springs outside of Pittsburgh. I was only moderately more competent than the first time, and though we were there for a few days, after the first day, every muscle in my body was so sore from sustained maximum effort that I could barely walk. My skis were straight and long and it’s a wonder I didn’t break a leg or my skull. And that was in the nineties, so no helmets!


Fast forward six or eight years and I was living in New Hampshire ready to try again. I learned to ski as our sons learned. This time around, I took some lessons and wore a helmet.


Over the years I’ve had quite a few instructors with quite a few teaching styles. There are some instructors whose teaching goal seems to be letting you know how much they know about skiing. They talk at length about what angle your edges should be sharpened to, and the angle of the edge in the snow as you begin the turn, and the angle of your elbows as you hold your poles, and the angle of your knee bend. There is a lot of standing at the top of the hill in these lessons pulling your thumbs out of their isolation chambers and curling them into your fingers to stave off frost bite. No doubt these instructors know a lot about skiing (it’s all about angles!), but during most of these discourses, my mind wanders to whether I’ll be having a noodle bowl or chicken fingers for lunch.


On a related note, I’ve also experienced tennis coaches who want to talk at length about the Eastern and Western racket grip and the angle of the racket face and the degree of shoulder turn. It’s all good stuff, but I didn’t really understand any of that either until I had hit about a million balls. By contrast, the instructors that have been most helpful to me have talked less and modeled more. With skiing, I find doing lots of runs and trying to follow the instructor’s turns is far more effective than trying to ski in some precisely technical way. With a little more feel for what we’re talking about, the lift ride back up the hill is the perfect time to discuss what happened and maybe even consider an angle or two.


As a teacher, I know I am sometimes guilty of talking too much and introducing too many ideas and not leaving students enough time to just try things out and see what happens. Being a student myself – especially when I am learning to do something that I do not find intuitive - helps me identify my own bad habits as an instructor. My students don’t need me to prove that I can do the problem. They usually need me to talk less and let them do more. They need time to develop their own feel for things because angle talks just aren’t that illuminating when you’re first learning.


Being a student also helps me empathize. It can be demoralizing to not catch on to something quickly. Some kids are giving maximum effort like I was at Seven Springs, and not seeing great results. After hearing too many angles talks, and feeling lost, some students are convinced they aren’t math people (or readers or writers). Skiing reminds me that incremental progress matters a lot. Though I will never be a racer like my younger son, whose joy and skill send him hurtling down any hill, with the time, space, and inclination to try and fail and try again, I have found that I can enjoy and appreciate my own accomplishments.


Under the right conditions, I think we are all skiers. (And math people, readers, and writers.)


Images by Kristin Blais



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