On a cold winter day on the plains of South Dakota, a group of children were gathered around a beaten green pick-up truck, cheering as another vehicle pulled in behind it. The red Buick holds my mother and I, nestled in among dozens of boxes and suitcases. I was fuming in the back seat, scrunched against the door by the massive pile of presents for the children excitedly crowding around the car. I was hundreds of miles outside of my comfort zone and I was not happy about being forced outside of its small borders.
It was winter break, 1999, and I felt trapped on a small Native American reservation, thirty miles from the nearest grocery store. The reservation’s main town consisted of a small gas station and the large casino both of which were visible from our position at the reservation’s small and decaying church complex. Jim and Jon, the co-leaders of the group my mother and I were with, pushed their way through the crowd and pulled open the car doors, allowing the chilled wind access to every crook and cranny of the car. “Welcome to Crow Creek Reservation. Did you guys have a good time with your family?”, they asked us while pushing the children back so we could unpack ourselves from the car. My mother smiled and I grimaced, once again wondering why I had allowed myself to be dragged away from home, first to Iowa to see my mother’s family, and now to this deserted place in South Dakota. “Yes, it was wonderful,” my mother interjected quickly before I could make a typically angst-ridden statement. “So wonderful, I wish I were still there. There’s not even snow here!” I muttered as I kicked at the dead tuft of grass poking listlessly between the gravel in front of me. I quieted down at the blistering glance my mother gave me, but still pouted as I surveyed the bleak weeks before me and tried very hard to ignore the joy on the faces of the Native American children around us.
Despite my great efforts to not enjoy myself, which were varied and somewhat difficult to accomplish, I found myself slowly looking forward to and enjoying the daily craft classes I had been convinced to teach because I was the only artistically inclined person in the group. At first I had protested, saying that some of the children were older than I, and there was no way they would listen to me. I muttered that I had no experience actually teaching craft activities, and that surely an adult like my mother with some formal education in the management of a classroom would be much more suited for the task of the twenty-one lessons. I was given an assistant and told to make the crafts before class started to remind myself of the steps before reminding me that my mother had come along to cook for everyone. I conceded with a groan, completely assured of the impending failure of the classes. But as the first week passed I was proven wrong, the children listened to me carefully as we assembled beaded lizards and glued fake rhinestones onto cardboard picture frames. I could tell the children honestly enjoyed the crafts that I had learned to take for granted after years of doing them at summer camps. Gradually their enthusiasm infected me, and by the time New Year’s Eve (and our departure) rolled around I had developed some close friendships with a few of the children. The ones who had managed to finagle their way into sleeping at the church with the group had earned a place in everyone‘s hearts.
After New Year’s Eve night, which was spent out in the church’s playground with most of the children, fireworks and many dangerous stunts, my mother and I began packing to leave the reservation and head to back home in time for my mother‘s college classes. The children clustered around the red Buick with tears on their faces, waving sadly as my mother slammed the trunk shut and steadied herself for the two day drive ahead of her and I. I looked around at the familiar faces and knew that I had changed over the three weeks I had spent with them.
I did not force myself to go on the trip to the reservation, my mother did. I had no choice, but in the end it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I realize now, that had I not gone on that trip and experienced what I did I would not have the appreciation I have today for the simple things of life that the children on that reservation lacked. I would not have grown to the person I am today.
I look back to that experience when I feel as if I have not changed since kindergarten, and use it to remind myself of the benefits of forcing myself into unfamiliar situations. It is hard to step into the uncomfortable, and I often resisted it despite the obvious benefits because it was difficult or inconvenient.
The very fact that I have learned to eventually force myself outside of the padded walls of my comfort zone instills a new hope in me for the future. My mind constantly reflects on the growth I have experienced over my lifetime. I find myself worrying about the situations I may encounter in the future, plotting out results and attempting to calculate the odds of a positive result. But I quickly remind myself of the sometimes extremely rapid growth I have experienced in the past and I look forward to the development that is sure to come as I continue my life. Stepping outside of my comfort zone is the only true way I can assure my future success, and I believe it is the most important thing I can do for myself.