A Parable of Power Washing

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By Leah Balkoski

From the top
of the ladder, all I could think was, This
is not going to end well. How did I get here? Better yet, how do I get down?

I had not
woken up that Friday morning expecting that before lunch, I would find myself
fifteen feet in the air holding a power hose. Yet there I was: it was the
fourth day of orientation for me and the other Jackson Center summer fellows, Sofie,
Ashley, and Varsha, and Sofie and Ashley joined me at a house in Pine Knolls
for A Brush with Kindness, the Habitat for Humanity initiative that provides
home repairs and renovations to families in need. Our tasks had begun with
hedge trimming, but had quickly escalated—literally—to power washing the siding
and awnings of the house.

The Summer Fellows: Leah, Ashley, and Sofie

Our instructions
were much less detailed than I would have liked for my first time handling a
power tool: aim the wand somewhere you won’t hurt anybody, hold down the
safety, pull the trigger, and go for it—close enough to get the dirt but not so
close that you rip the paint off the house. When Tate put the gun in my hands,
at first I just stood there in a stunned silence. Why on earth would anyone
think I should be trusted with a tool that could wreak such tremendous havoc? I
wanted to give it back and request more hedges to trim. But as Tate walked off,
I knew there was no going back. Those awnings were dirty and it was up to me to
get them clean.

The first few
were not the problem: the ladder didn’t shake and was only about five feet off
the ground. Sofie and I took turns power washing and holding the ladder, and
after my second go, I started to feel like maybe I was actually good at this
gig, even though I was terrified I would get too close to the house and ruin
the paint job. The longer I went without destroying anything, the better I
felt. I was surprising myself, and it was spectacularly satisfying. I felt
capable, useful, powerful, and ready for more awnings to wash. That is, until I
saw how high up the last one was.

Sofie getting soaked

As Tate went
to get the big ladder, all my confidence drained away and I began to regret how
boldly I had asserted my newfound love and talent for power washing. Everyone
watched me expectantly as Tate settled the ladder against the side of the
house, so I slung the hose over my shoulder and gingerly stepped on the first
rung. The ladder quivered. I began to climb.

Leah on the tall ladder – it felt higher than it looks!

Somehow I made
it to the top—the very, very top of this very, very tall ladder. About fifteen
feet below me, the engine roared, and four faces squinted up at me against the
sun. Just when I was about to announce that I had overestimated my power
washing abilities and really should get down, Ashley yelled up, “Don’t worry, I’m
holding the ladder. You’re not gonna fall. You got this.” I looked down at her
through my safety goggles and saw her gripping the bottom of the ladder, and
almost immediately, I started to calm down. I was still scared, but I knew that
if she said I was safe, I was safe, and if she said I could do it, I could do
it—even if I wasn’t sure I believed in myself, her support reassured me to the
point that I did.  

I had only
known Ashley for three days, but I trusted her. That was part of the magic of
the Jackson Center, I realized later: that, without reservation, I trusted
these people who were practically strangers—trusted them to be honest,
hardworking, kind people, people who would not let me fall off a ladder. Even
though I hadn’t known anyone very long, I felt like I had, and I knew that I
was in good company, both in the office and out doing yardwork.

Later that day,
during a staff exercise, Ms. Yvonne and I were paired together to tell each
other stories about times in the recent past when we had felt powerful. Ms.
Yvonne told me about graduating from college, and I told her about power
washing that morning. Listening to each other, we found more similarities than
I think either of us had expected: our stories were both about not being
confident that we could accomplish something challenging, and feeling satisfied
and empowered when we did. When we told our stories to the rest of the staff,
everyone thought it was ridiculous that we had ever doubted ourselves, telling
us that we obviously we had always had it in us to do those things we found so
daunting, but just couldn’t see it, even though everyone else could. Ms. Yvonne
and I were bashful, still not wanting to take full credit for our
accomplishments, but the rest of the team wouldn’t let us off the hook.  

Now in my
third week, I can see even more clearly how this attitude is characteristic of
the Jackson Center community. I feel so lucky to have found my way to a
workplace where everyone helps one another realize their potential by
supporting and trusting each other. We all know that our teammates here are
capable of amazing things, and in the moments when we doubt that we too are
capable of these amazing things, we can always look down and see hands we trust
holding the ladder, reassuring us that we can.

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