My favorite high school French teacher, Madame Orlowsky, began each school year by telling her students a story. She told us to close our eyes and picture ourselves within the narrative she was about to tell.
The tale went like this: You are out camping in the middle of the woods when you hear a rustle of branches nearby. Suddenly, a huge bear enters the clearing with two cubs following in her footsteps. She immediately sets her eyes on you, recognizing a threat to the safety of her children. The bear gets visibly more aggressive as her protective instincts activate.
Possible plans of action flood through your head, common dilemmas of fight-or-flight: Are you going to freeze up in fear? Should you run away?
Ultimately, you decide to stand your ground. You stand up, put your hands on your hips, and tell the bear, “I’m no threat to you, and you don’t scare me.” You make it clear that you have established a temporary space for yourself, and though you don’t mean her or her cubs any harm, you are not going to pack up your trip because of a single brush-up with danger. You remain confident despite any distress you might feel. The bear recognizes your self-assuredness and her aggression subsides. She walks to the edge of the clearing, her children in tow, and disappears back into the woods.
The metaphor in Madame Orlowsky’s story was clear. Her fictitious tale highlighted how challenges are unpredictable and inevitable. They force you to reflect, to assess your situation and determine how you will endure it. If you approach the circumstances with conviction, rather than weighing yourself down with panic, your problems may just walk away.
By beginning her classes each year with this story — even before cracking open a single page of a French textbook — our teacher encouraged an atmosphere of fortitude and positivity in the classroom. I recognized the significance of her narrative upon hearing it for the first time.
I would not learn the depth of its real-life applicability until much later.
Gathered in a clearing, me, my parents and the rest of our hiking group began walking single-file onto the path, folding us into a world of towering pines. The Alaskan wilderness seemed incredibly alive, the rushing of the river and singing of birds — the constant soundtrack of our day at Katmai National Park and Preserve. As we walked, we talked about the exciting prospect of seeing some of the most thrilling wildlife in North America: the grizzly bears.
My brother’s baseball team was participating in several tournaments throughout Alaska. My parents, wanting to both explore the legendary Alaskan landscape and escape from the endless baseball games, brought me on a day trip to the remote national park. We’d been to Alaska over a decade before, but on our second trip, my mother made a visit to Katmai a priority. It was almost guaranteed that you would see at least a handful of large grizzly bears gathered at the river that ran through the park. The trails from the rangers’ lodge led you right to the Brooks River, where you could see bears catching live salmon jumping out from the waterfalls. The prospect of witnessing this feat of nature astounded me; it seemed like a scene out of “Brother Bear” rather than a real-life possibility.
My head was filled with a mix of anticipation, elation and nervousness. Our group had just finished our bear safety training in which park rangers simultaneously emphasized the magnificence of the animals as well as the necessity of extreme caution. We were in their home, and one stupid human action could result in alarming consequences for all.
I was at the front of our small procession, looking up at the canopies while keeping my eyes peeled for unexpected animals. I breathed in the fresh air, reveling in the remoteness for a moment when my peace was disrupted by a panicked shout of “Get off the path!”
I looked back, hearing another round of “Get off the path!” from a few others before I registered that my parents were flinging themselves into the surrounding woods adjacent to the trail. My mind processed what my body did not immediately register: There was a bear, running full speed, coming directly at me. If I didn’t move, it would plow right through me.
I followed my parents’ lead and jumped to the side and hurdled into the woods and over a fallen tree milliseconds before I was trampled by the racing bear. The creature was so close that if I had reached out my hand, I would have been able to stroke its thick brown fur. The safety course warned us not to make sudden movements because they startle the animals. But in this case, moving rapidly out of the way was the only way to prevent any serious bodily harm.
I took in the people standing within the trees around me, still not believing what just transpired. We all seemed to be wondering the same thing: What was the bear running from?
We got our answer seconds later as another bear came charging in. It slowed down, coming to a stop directly in front of me, less than 20 feet away. Cantering in close behind it were two cubs, following their mother as she ran off the previous young male bear who came too close to her offspring.
We remained silent, not believing that this had happened less than five minutes into our Katmai adventure. The mother proceeded to take in her surroundings, her glance settling on the people crowded into the trees.
The rangers advised us to give the bears a wide berth of 50 feet and to move aside if we saw them walking on the trail, granting them the path for their own foot travel. I had quickly broken this first rule — I was definitely less than 50 feet away. But, abiding by the rangers’ instructions, we all moved deeper into the woods, slowly giving her the path while keeping an eye on her movements. She remained there for several moments, staring back at us. For the moment, I simply absorbed the bear family’s beauty and the wildness of the moment.
After no more than 30 seconds, she and her children continued on their way, now rid of the foolish male that had threatened her family.
I don’t think Madame Orlowsky ever expected me to experience a real-life manifestation of her metaphor. Upon reflecting on my encounter, I now see that I didn’t run away, freeze or stand up to the bear like she had outlined in her narrative. Instead, I took a literal step back, observed the bear and respected her dominance within the woods. I recognized the role I had to play within the context of the situation and played that part to achieve the safest outcome for all.
The circumstances were frightening. The bear was not metaphorical — she was a corporeal part of the wildlife I had traveled to Katmai to admire. Any individual action would not have helped in the situation. Maybe it would have resulted in a detrimental outcome if I had provoked her. Conceding the trail allowed me to appreciate her presence and then continue on the path.
Madame Orlowsky was my French teacher for two years, yet in both years, none of her students knew of her true reasoning for telling the tale. We just assumed she wanted us to be prepared for life’s challenges and made up a random symbolic representation to communicate the idea.
The real inspiration behind her story was made clear to most of us halfway through our senior year when our daily interactions with Madame Orlowsky were suddenly interrupted. We were consistently faced with her absence, confronted with a rotation of substitute teachers that taught our course for a day, a week or more. We were left in the dark about where Madame Orlowsky actually was. We just knew that it would take something serious to keep her from engaging with her students.
After about a month of this carousel of instructors, one of the substitutes handed us each a printed letter on a pink piece of paper.
“It’s from Madame Orlowsky. I’ll give you all a few minutes to read it.”
I immediately plunged into the words on the page, desperate to know what was happening with our beloved teacher. Chers étudiants, she began — Dear students. I held my breath and continued reading, processing her apologies and explanation for her long absence. She outlined how, in the past, she had had several bouts with cancer and had been in remission for the last several years. She ended the letter with a paragraph on her current situation but never said outright that the cancer had returned. Instead, she wrote: “I must have gotten too close to the bear and her cubs this time. I’m taking this time to be with my family and await what happens next.” She wished us all the best for the rest of the year and reiterated her deep love for each of us.
I rarely cry, but after finishing Madame Orlowsky’s note, tears soaked the pink page.
Last month, sitting in my apartment in Ann Arbor, I watched the livestream of her funeral in Minnesota. They played a video of a Zoom interview between her and her pastor. She described how, with the help of her faith and the love of her family, she was prepared for whatever outcome came from her current state. From an outside perspective, she seemed collected, content even. She had a smile on her face the whole time, answering the pastor’s questions with enthusiasm despite her tragic circumstances.
I was astonished at how someone could take on this immeasurable challenge with so much positivity. Watching that video, my mind kept returning to the metaphor that she had repeated to her students year after year. The metaphor that she reiterated in some of her final written words to us. As I reflected, I determined that maybe her metaphor didn’t mean what I first thought it did. That the result of the challenge was not the most important takeaway.
In the end, Madame Orlowsky couldn’t scare off her bear. In my encounter with the Alaskan grizzly, I certainly didn’t put my hands on my hips and tell her to go away. If the bear is big enough, angry enough, there is only so much that individual actions can do to change the fallout; the final outcome is dependent on a million different factors. The most control we can have over a situation is our reaction to it, dictating our experience within the crisis. This is what allowed me to find joy in my alarming interaction with the bear. And it’s what gave Madame a measure of peace in her final days.
I know that complete and total happiness is relatively impossible, and remaining constantly optimistic takes an immense amount of effort within difficult circumstances. I have no illusions that Madame was always perfectly composed, accepting of her fate. But identifying what you can do to help yourself in times of hardship will hopefully lead to some measure of comfort and serenity, if only for a moment. From Madame Orlowsky, from this past year and a half of uncertainty, this is the most significant thing I have learned.
The importance of choosing how we react to difficulties has been iterated over and over again, but that only confirms its validity. Fixating on “overcoming” an obstacle reduces a complex situation to “winning” or “losing” when the journey through strife often results in a mix of both. It’s not the outcome that proves the resilience and will of an individual, but the acknowledgment of the issue and the adaptation to the situation at hand. Ultimately, the bear will decide what it wants to do. Sometimes the most we can do is take a deep breath of the woodland air until we can resume our path, declaring a truce with the wilderness around us.
Statement Correspondent Sarah Stolar can be reached at email@example.com.