I guided her feet to the ground and she quite literally dropped into my arms. She sobbed into my shoulder as she wept before a group of team members. She whispered “Thank You” in my ear as I rubbed her back in consolation. The team of 14 other members and two master trainers applauded for the effort and willingness to trust one another. When the members came over to unhook and harness Cynthia, I was overwhelmed with grief and disappointment. I wandered into the shade of some trees as the next person was readied. Seventeen relative strangers ramped up the energy as I questioned what had just happened.
Acres and acres of lush forrest land hid a challenge course, live stock, and a few cabins. Part of a school district, I was introduced earlier in the year with a group of high schoolers from my first year of teaching. My class had individuals stagnated in poverty, gang life, and years of low expectations, a group of highly motivated students from the same neighborhood made the choice to be student peer advisors. In order to facilitate trust and cohesion as a group, the teenagers spend a couple of school days solving mind puzzles, logic challenges, and overcoming physical obstacles as a cohort.
Day to day, I dealt with the consequences of parents who did not make their child a priority. In less than a year, I had become disillusioned with the juvenile justice and school systems. Some days I left battered, bloodied, and with no hope for the future. These teens actually liked me as I normally got seared by the flames of contempt from my students.
I saw the trainers bring out greatness from these young people. Girls, who normally warred against each other, extended hands of support to pull one over the wooden wall until the whole group had safely and successful beaten the Challenge Wall. The same girls caught one another in the Trust Fall. In roughly a day and a half, we conquered the low ropes exercises but I wanted to try my hand at the high flying elements.
“If you will commit to volunteer at least two days to cover another school’s Challenge day, you can become a certified trainer.” It was all I needed to hear and I signed up for the week long obstacle course training.
Teachers from all across the district joined community members to become certified Ropes Trainers. Bob was the lead Ropes Master trainer and nothing seemed to phase him. Bob was safety first.
Everything was face value. Bob would describe the rope’s precise ability to handle 14,487 pounds of force exertion. Each activity created bonds between the group members. We cycled through the ground elements to figure out the puzzles we would present to our participants but we had to solve the riddles as a team first. Certain group member’s strengths were brought out. Each of us were drawn to similar personality types. With sixteen individuals, we were paired up with someone new for each exercise.
All of us had weaknesses. We opened up to the group. Bob’s roles as a facilitator/safety inspector/master trainer materialized throughout the week. I noticed I had serious balance issues once we started to walk across logs on the ground. “If I cannot even walk from one side to the other with this pole on the ground, I am not sure I should attempt any of the higher apparatuses.” That doubt would haunt my thoughts the rest of the time.
The “Trust Fall” activity involved a person standing on a platform about three feet off the ground. A group of peers would be lined up in two rows. The person the the platform would face away from the team. The person’s heels on the end of the platform. Once the arms of the team members were out, like a loosely woven net, the person was verbally signaled the group was ready to catch the participant. The activity began with a small, thin lady as the first volunteer. Each team member’s arm would evenly distribute the weight of the lady. We followed Bob’s instructions and she was safely caught and returned to her feet in smooth succession. A full size man fell back during his turn with no indication of difficulty when the team absorbed the man’s body weight. “Your turn, Hoss,” My newest buddy, Tommy, posed as more of an expectation than a query. I nodded affirmatively. Bob delivered strategic directions to mitigate the strain on the team’s arms.
I knew this was going to break the “touch” barrier. I am not adverse to being touched; yet, the fall would shatter the intimacy boundary with a swift shift of gravity. I had done the NesTea Plunge numerous times. I knew the water would be there. My arms tucked and crossed on my chest, I closed my eyes as I leaned completely back. I landed in the pillow of outstretched arms and tilted upright with the wise oversight of Bob’s supervision.
I knew my fall had raised the bar of the group’s ability and confidence. The team seemed closer to me. I was not the only one who observed the intensity level’s increase. I was one of the members who caught Cynthia. In her mid forties, Cynthia had a calming effect on whoever had her attention. Cynthia gelt the bond after I captured her. Without any romantic heirs (?), between us, we began confiding in one another. Both of os had the same intuition and could glance at one another with an unspoken understanding of what nuances we had observed.
The Ropes elements grew steadily in proportion and complexity. Added to the level of difficulty, the elements required two people to work in tandem. I volunteered to set up the element rather than perform the challenge. In order to set up the obstacle, I had to climb higher than the physical element. The trainers would have harnesses, carabiners, and assigned ropes to connect together into a system of pulleys and challenge obstacles. Not one to climb trees or get involved in roof top acrobatics, the training was my first leap into the realm of dealing with the fear of heights.
The poles were the same used for electric and telephone service across the country. Every so many feet, a four inch “staple” had been shot into the wood. Two inch hooks were the steps, hand hold, and location I would clip my harness onto at every opportunity. If I lost my footing, two loops were clipped to these hooks which would halt any fall. I never wanted to test this phenomenon. Bob double checked my harness and patted my shoulder in encouragement.
After the initial few feet up the pole, I found a rhythm. Before I knew it, I had reached the last hook and I clipped my harness to the splinter delivery system. I reached out to the anchor wires and followed the set up procedures. Far more complicated fifty feet in the air, my breathing pattern signaled a fair amount of anxiety. “Use both hands!” Bob shouted up to me.
Bob’s words brought a spotlight on the fact I had my left arm clutched around the pole. When I practiced the element set up on the ground, I used two hands. From fifty feet in the air, my survival instinct was to hang onto the only object within my grasp. “Chad? Use both hands. Let go and the harness will keep you steady.” Bob assured from the safety of his feet securely on the ground. I acted like I did not hear him and continued to use my right hand to set out the carabiners and locked them into place. As Bob repeatedly yelled out instructions, I was glad he could not hear the profane instructions I said quietly for him.
With the element correctly secured, I climbed down. I could not sense my body’s nerve endings as adrenaline masked every ache. Over the course of a couple of days, I realized I pulled myself up the poles rather than the reliance on my legs. My foot could slip off where my hand clasped on each exposed hook was the surety my soul insisted upon.
On my way home after day three, the wear & tear on my muscles reached a fever pitch. As each day passed, the sun sent the temperature to a normal Texas summer day in June. The poles soaked in those rays that scorched the skin on my inner arms. By the end of day four, I paid a massage therapist to meet me at my house and my aches developed into real pain. I woke up the morning of the last day and my restless night of sleep pushed me beyond the breaking point. I snoozed the alarm and questioned the point of finishing the course. I faced my fears, proved I could do it, so what more is there for me?
“The team…” echoed through my confused head. I had one reason to go and it was to support the collective.
At “Circle Up”, for the past five mornings, we shared our goals for the day and any thoughts. “I am sore. Don’t expect me to participate. The only purpose for me being here is to support y’all.” From seated positions, I cheered on the team. As the day wore on, I carried equipment, brought water to team members, and anchored a few times.
My body had picked a swell day to protest as The Pamper Pole was the last element. A thirty five foot pole where a participant would climb to the top, gain their balance, and jump six feet to a trapeze. The name of the element had several legends that surrounded it. The speculation derived from the lack of pampering the climber had to endure. The participant had to climb away from the trapeze and halfway up the pole climb to the other side of the pole to face the direction of the awaiting trapeze. The participant would, also, have to balance on the circumference of the pole without the assistance of a platform. The other possibility relating to the name of the element was the genuine reality that one will need to wear a pair of pampers if they make it to the top of the element.
I gathered the other team members items. I generally found ways to blend in as to not draw attention to my lack of participation. The participant could select the person to belay the rope as to control the drop rate once the participant left the top of the Pamper Pole. Since the element had a reality of shifting weight, the person on the belay would need two anchors or people that would hang on to the belayer’s harness to keep them from being pulled off their feet. The participant could designate a few people to coach them as the negotiated the various challenges inherent with the obstacle.
I watched as one team member fell during the portion of moving around the pole to the other side as well as an inability to stand up. My buddy who called me “Hoss” was a natural athlete. Tommy scaled the pole in record time and even did the Karate Kid Crane pose on one foot before he flew to the trapeze only six feet away. Some became disoriented by the swaying of the pole as it vibrated their every motion.
One team member requested that no one speak during his ascent. The challenge was deeply personal. A lot of voices shouting instructions could break someone’s concentration. After his jump, the team quietly recognized his accomplishment. Cynthia asked to be the next participant. “I only want Chad to talk to me,” her request came from out of the blue. My mind snapped to attention as I came over to her and double checked the harness. I presented some observations that might prepare her for shimmying around the pole halfway. She had inquired if Tommy would belay her so the three of us hugged in solidarity.
Cynthia found her way up, around, and at the top of the pole quite rapidly. With her petite feet tucked securely on the diameter of the pole, it was the last challenge to overcome. There was not a choice, one would end up falling at some point. The question remained if it would be a mishap or after letting go of the trapeze. The element was a metaphor as I saw it. Tears streamed down her flushed cheeks. I could tell the fear Cynthia experienced was more than the embrace of the challenge of the Pamper Pole. I let some silence fill the space. Cynthia had shared some personal details with me that brought us closer.
“Where you are right now in life is safe. You told me you are ready to make a change. When you are ready, leap to that new life.”
Without looking down to me, “I’m scared I won’t make it!”
“Then we will be here. We will catch you. You’ll know you tried, right? That place is far better than staying where you are.”
The tears poured from both corners of her eyes. Suddenly, the tears seemed to dry. With a deep breath in, Cynthia calmly proclaimed, “Belay on.” She had signaled to the team she was about to jump and she soared into the trapeze. She could not hold her weight and her hands lost her grasp.
Cynthia was lowered to the ground where I ensured she would not get hurt. Upon expressing her gratitude, I let her know I was tremendously honored to be there for her and proud she beat her fears. Tommy came over and the three amigos held each other tight once more.
I helped Cynthia remove the tethers that kept her safe as the team came over to congratulate Cynthia on her accomplishment. I bowed over to the side in some shade trees to process the moment. Cynthia asked me to support her through the challenge. She wanted me to support her and how had I shown my respect to the group? I felt an intrinsic drive to pay my respect to the team. I knew what I had to do. I quietly put my harness back on and joined the activity by taking some of the needed roles during the obstacle. I noticed who had belay’d others. The simple solution was to ask my buddy Tommy to belay me but that was too easy. Trey was an unassuming man that kept to himself. He would engage in conversations, volunteered for the dirty jobs, but I had not seen him bond with anyone. If Trey smiled, it had not been witnessed during the week. The group had powered through fourteen participants. One person went twice as he had fallen at the midpoint in his attempt to migrate to the other side of the pole. Everyone was supportive but the energy has slowly melted off in the rays of Amun Ra’s fierce light.
I approached Trey after the second to last jumper, “Would you belay me please?”
Trey’s normal poker face showed signs of bafflement. “You’re gonna go?” His eye brows lifted.
“If you will belay me, I will trust you to do it,” I communicated in a bargaining tone.
“Chad’s gonna go!” Trey announced. The words shot Bob off his perch and organized the team’s efforts. I went over to Cynthia and Tommy “Would both of you talk me through this please?” The three of us locked and checked the carabiners and ropes as every ounce of strategy left me from every pore. I could only handle one challenge at a time. The endorphins rushed into my limbs as I felt myself finally trust my legs to do the work. Tommy let me know I had reach the section where I needed to maneuver to the backside of the pole. I knew I could fall like one of the team had earlier. I trusted my hands enough to proceed around and up. I raced to the top where I encountered my first authentic challenge. I had not allowed my legs to support me any time except for this element. My legs would not move past the second to last staple. I thoroughly examined the pole. The staples/hooks/steps were staggered in such a way that Once I took the next step, I could not lean against the pole for support. The pole began to sway from side to side. My legs responded by cinching tightly to any surface.
I sent the message to my leg to raise up but it would not budge. I even tugged my pant leg upward. I placed my hands on top of the pole and pulled myself to the top step. There was nothing I could hold for balance. I did not possess the agility to steady myself on a log splayed across the ground. I had no business standing on a wayward pole thirty five feet in the air. Attached to the step, I could not get my left leg to consider any upward movement. Even further off balance, I stretched forward to shift my weight to my right leg. My left leg starts to leave the security of the staple, all of the processes and thoughts seemed to cause a psychosomatic crescendo that rang in my head. My emotions and physical exertion strained as I hear my buddy yell out, “Just stand up!” Before I could visualize my tumble towards the ground, I stood atop the Pamper Pole and all became still at once.
In full disbelief, I took in the landscape. It seemed I could see for miles. I had done it. Anything that happened from here was gravy. It was the first week of June on 1998. The trees wore the blossomed green leaves. I was lost in the moment. I hadn’t thought about the comfort of my bed, the aches that strived to keep me on the ground, or the fear of failure. I had never heard the sound of the leaves rustle from my vantage point. It was more peaceful. I felt connected with my surroundings. In a single step, all of those confusing signals had been replaced with serenity.
I was there due to the support of the team and my choice to pay a tribute to their kindness. Tommy brought me back by quoting Mr Miyagi, “Wax On. Wax off.” I responded with the hand sweeps from the Karate Kid. “Paint the fence.” I gestured appropriately as the team laughed. Bob interrupted the fun to bring back the focus.
“Think of something you want to leap towards, Chad,” Cynthia repeated my symbolism back to me. I stood taller than I had ever imagined. I let her know I was in a good place. I didn’t need to visualize the metaphor of going towards something fresh. “Chad, think of something you have carried around and need to leave up there.”
As the words pierced my soul, I knew exactly what Cynthia referred to in her metaphor. I had huge pus ball of of regret and heartbreak. I had stored that pain so long it had felt like a part of me. I softly whispered that the years of pain would not be coming with me. “you will be staying here,” I spoke softly but with the earned confidence. In my best war cry, “BELAY ON!” I leapt for glory. The moment captured on film.
I had never experienced the depth or breadth of emotion from an abstract experience. I most certainly had not opted to do the week of outdoor training to purge myself of heartache. The last two team members did their climbs and the group packed up the gear. There was a closing “Circle Up” where we shared the moments we would never forget.
There are a few hugs I have shared with a person that were soul deep. Cynthia will continue to remain on the list.
I had used prayer, therapy, and many other activities to jettison that tie to my past. None of it worked. When I least expected it, I left it successfully at the top of a thirty five foot pole in Azle, Texas.
I learned to be real in each moment I can. It is easier to say and more difficult to practice. The times with Tommy laughing and palling around was meaningful. It brought a richness to the Ropes course. Cynthia reached out to me in need of support. Has she not asked, I might have never been driven to venture forth.
Then again, had I not been willing to help the student peer advisors, I would have not known about a Ropes course. It all goes back to being open to ask for and offering help. A willingness to go out of the way to support others only makes me stronger.