That’s the proper reaction to having someone’s face in front of the muzzle of a gun you’re holding, even after 1) reassurances and demonstrations that the gun is unloaded and 2) making sure there’s no finger anywhere near the trigger.
Truthfully, it creeped me out too. Long before it ever occurred to me that I might own a gun, I had memorized my dad’s admonition: Never point a gun at anything you don’t intend to kill. Left unsaid (after the first 200 or 300 times) was the “because.” Because shit happens. That gun could go off even if you didn’t mean to hit the trigger. Even if you didn’t think it was loaded.
So there we were, breaking this cardinal rule. But I knew it needed to be done. I had brought Ninja my Hatsan youth 20 gauge autoloader, one of the loaner guns I keep on hand for shorties like herself, barely north of 5-foot-0. Once I showed her how to mount the gun – butt in the pocket, cheek firmly on the stock, don’t tilt your head so much! – I had to see if her eye was in the right spot, because if it wasn’t, she’d never hit a thing.
This is what my best two instructors had done with me, so it was what I needed to do with her.
Dear God, am I even qualified to do this? Do I need some sort of certification or something? Here we go…
I stared down the barrel at her freaked out-face, saw her right eyeball right where it should be.
“Good!” I pronounced confidently, then dodged quickly out of the way, relieved to have that over with.
The drama was done, and now the real work would begin. The only question was whether it would be harder for me or her.
This is not to suggest Ninja is anything less than awesome. I think she broke her first clay within five shots and proceeded to do way better than I did on my first day of shooting. I hated her for it, just a little bit.
What I’m saying is that teaching is really, really hard.
The very first time I deigned to teach was at a journalism workshop. I can’t remember the exact topic – probably something to do with my dorky fondness for policy reporting and spreadsheets – but as I looked out at the 50 or 60 people attending that workshop, I wondered how many of them were way more talented and accomplished than I was.
Then I got in my groove. I turned on my Holly – all energy, passion and enthusiasm – and I began to see faces in the audience light up and lean in just a bit, focused and attentive.
Anyone who’s ever taught knows that look is the crack cocaine of teaching, the Holy Grail, the affirmation that you have something interesting and worthwhile to share. It feels really good.
Ninja didn’t look at me like that, though I did find it deeply satisfying when she’d give me dirty looks for interrupting her as she was about to say “Pull!” to remind her to stick her butt out, or square out her stance.
It was the look on her face after that, when she broke a clay, that lit my fire.
But of course one broken clay doth not a teacher make. While I have watched a lot of instruction, and I know a lot of tips that can be helpful to a new shooter, the truth is that I can’t always see what went wrong on a failed shot.
Sometimes I could see the shot pattern chasing that clay and say definitively, “Behind it.” Or I could see her bobble, or shoot too quickly before she’d really locked on. But other times I had no idea where her shot was or why she missed, and all I could do was shrug. What freaking good is that?
Helping newbies get into shooting and hunting is really important to me, so I’d like to be a really good teacher. I might be the only teacher they ever get, so I have to make it count. But boy, I have a lot to learn about helping people learn.
It was the same in journalism, first in workshops, then as an adjunct professor in Virginia, then as my full-time job for seven years at Sacramento State. Just because you know a lot – assuming you actually do know a lot – doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be effective at imparting that information. It takes a combination of equal parts trial-and-error, and mastering your topic. Merely being a step ahead of your students works for a while, but in the long run, it’s not enough.
I am reassured by only one thing: I know it does get better.
OK, maybe two things: It will make me a better shooter, too. Eventually.
Holly A. Heyser is the editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. A hunter, forager, writer and photographer, she lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com