September 13, 2009
Getting high. With my students.
I did not look down. I sat on the curve of the tree branch, holding on with both hands, and listened as students below me yelled encouraging words. I did not look down. Then the ropes instructor yelled, “Okay, get your left foot to the top, and stand up!”
I’m always asking my students to move out of their comfort zone, to allow themselves to be vulnerable. I ask them to write short papers for every class, and I expect them to share their writing with each other. I push them away from safe, formulaic ways of writing and encourage them to experiment, to play with language, to be ambitious. Students come to Little Green thinking that they might have to write a few lab reports, and I tell them that they have to write poetry too.
On a ropes course, our roles are reversed.
Many of my students have worked as camp counselors. They’ve hiked, wilderness camped, and rock-climbed. Some have been working for years with construction companies or landscape firms. Because Little Green is a college that focuses on environmental studies, we get the kind of student who is quite comfortable climbing tall trees or dangling far above the ground in a rock-climbing harness.
And these are the kind of students who are quite willing to challenge me. It was a student taught me to use an ax, making sure I bought steel-toed boots first. Little Green students have changed my eating habits, turning me into a vegan. A group from my literature class took me winter camping in the mountains. Other students, after discovering that I was claustrophobic, took me to a cave.
So when we brought our first year students on an outdoor retreat this weekend, I knew that if I was going to ask the students to move outside their comfort zone that I would have to allow myself to be vulnerable as well. And for me, that’s always the high ropes course.
I’m terrified of heights.
The adrenaline began surging though my veins as soon as I was more than ten feet off the ground. “Don’t look down,” I kept muttering to myself. The students below shouted encouragement, “Okay, now climb to the right. Just a little higher! You can do it!” The ropes instructor kept saying things like, “Okay, now relax and enjoy the view.” Yeah, right. He’s got an odd sense of humor.
What I was climbing was a dead tree, a forked tree with two branches that had been sawed off at the top. The plan was to stand and balance on the stumps that the two dead branches made. Smiley Student was my climbing partner, and we were wearing harnesses, of course. The climbers who had tried the element before us had both fallen and had been lowered safely to the ground, something that didn’t give me confidence.
Strangely, standing up, balancing myself on the wooden stump that barely held room for both my feet, wasn’t that difficult. I think I was so focused on the challenge of balancing that I didn’t even have time to think about how high up I was. After a lifetime of walking along the tops of fences, I had no trouble balancing, even on one foot. Smiley Student held my hand. She was laughing as we posed for the students below.
The tough part was when the instructor said, “Okay, you’re done! Now step off.”
That’s when I allowed myself to look. The view across the treetops was beautiful, but the ground looked very far away. It was far away. I checked the rope, looked at the cable. I called down to the young man on the other end of the rope. Stepping straight off into all that air seemed like a crazy thing to do.
“We can do it together,” said Smiley Student.
“Okay, on three,” I said. “One, two, three.”
And then we jumped.
That's me on the right, in the red shirt and helmet. I handed my camera to one of my students before I went up, and she took the photo.
Posted by jo(e)