Comfort Zones by Nancy Mugele

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From the first time I watched The Wizard of Oz as a young girl, I vowed never to get into a hot air balloon. I was more afraid of the balloon than the Wicked Witch of the West – or her monkeys. Why fly in an unsteerable aircraft subject to the whim of the winds, when you can simply click your heels together and find your way safely home. Seriously, hot air balloons truly frightened me. While I was not really afraid of the experience of “flying” – I became consumed with panic when I thought about the actual landing.

I was convinced that hot air balloons were not safe. After all, the heated air inside the balloon is propelled by an open flame of burning liquid propane. Seems like a recipe for disaster. And, then there is the woven wicker basket – the only thing holding you in, and holding you up. No, thank you.

Last weekend I snuck away to Napa with Jenna and Kelsy for the first of, I hope many, Mugele Girls Weekends. Yes, you guessed it. I was pressured to take a hot air balloon ride. Jenna made me do it, and she was the birthday girl who made the reservation, so I could not back out. I was petrified.

On a regular basis, we tell our students at Kent School not to be afraid to take risks. We push them out of their comfort zones with challenging academics, performing and visual arts exhibits, physical education and athletics, outdoor educational experiences on the water, overnight trips and class-bonding trust exercises. Now it was time for me to take the advice I give students and expand my own personal boundaries.

On the morning of the scheduled sunrise balloon trip, we arrived at the location in the dark. As a result, we did not notice the heavy fog sitting on top of the Napa Valley. Balloons cannot fly in fog so we were given the choice to drive 45 minutes away where the balloons would be able to fly. We decided to go, although it meant we would view the sunrise from large windows in passenger vans, and it also meant more time for me to obsess about the balloon ride and the subsequent landing.

Our balloon operator literally looked like Professor Marvel. He had been flying balloons for 28 years which was a comfort to me. Despite the fact that the basket did not have a door, meaning we had to climb into our compartment, all I can say is that the flight was magical. The scenery was breathtaking as we gently floated over the terrain. It was peaceful and the ride was silky smooth. The landing, well, that is another story. Thankfully there is no video. I may have screamed a bit, but I conquered my fear. I cannot describe the feeling of completing a task that I had never in my life ever expected to do. It felt incredibly joyful. There was an adrenaline rush I had not experienced in a long time and it was so exhilarating. I think my daughters were just as excited as I was that I went on the ride, exited the basket (with a little help), and was standing to tell the story.

I saw the same joyful expressions on my students’ faces this week in photographs from Middle School Chesapeake Bay Studies trips with Sultana Education Foundation and Echo Hill Outdoor School. There is truly nothing better than stretching yourself in a safe place. Whether in the classroom or in an outdoor classroom, research indicates that deeper learning happens when you push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

In Napa, I also popped a cork off a bottle of champagne by slicing through the bottle top with a saber à la Napoleon Bonaparte, who famously said, “In victory, you deserve champagne; in defeat, you need it.” I even received a certificate for mastering the art of sabrage, which I plan to display. Another out-of-comfort-zone experience I will savor for a long time. Cheers!

Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown and a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s.

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