It seems for many people school gym class was an early stage of high drama, one way or another, because everyone seems to have a “glory days” story or some sad tale of humiliation at the hands of an evil, testosterone-filled Physical Education instructor, like the formidable Miss Thunder Thighs from my junior high. But talk of her and her flimsy nylon short-shorts barely containing her massive barrel-shaped and cellulite-ridden upper legs will have to wait for another day. Today I tell the story of The Rope.

This was when I was much younger, maybe a couple of years after the “Billie” phase, so I would’ve been 8 or 9 years old, somewhere heading towards pre-pubescent pudge, probably. Once a month, we would get free play in the gym where everyone would whoop and holler and haul out the four-wheeled flat wooden square scooters, jump ropes, medicine balls, whatever was stored underneath the stage in the gym was OK to use. Today, the climbing rope was also lowered, hung from the dark brown rafters of the gym, a gold bell to ring in ascendant victory mounted next to the top of the rope. In my memory, the gym seemed as big as an arena, and the rope as tall as a 50-foot fir tree. I am sure that the reality was far more modest in scope. Everything seemed vast and wide and open then, my house a mansion, my acre yard an endless green field.

After some time running around and zooming the scooters at warp speed into the walls, a group of us gathered around the rope. Few in our class had mastered it, outside of a few spider monkey children. I couldn’t figure out how it was so effortless for them! Did gravity have no effect on them? Did they know some magic secret to climbing? They, boys of course, scooted up, hand over hand, legs pushing and propelling, and would ring the bell and skittered back down again, to cheers and applause from the gym teacher and the rest of the kids.

But, for most of us, still young to climb something like that, it was a Sisyphus-like struggle: you’d at best get about a quarter to halfway up, and would have to come back down, arms not strong enough to keep going. In fact, most of the girls could barely hang on to the rope for more than a few seconds at the bottom, giggling and letting go soon after. A few of the boys other than the wily monkeys would struggle, red-faced in determination, and sometimes they would make it to the top. The gym teacher would always have to remind everyone, “DON’T SLIDE DOWN THE ROPE! GO SLOWLY!” but of course there were plenty of beet-red rope burn victims from the fat wrapped hemp demon.

I, compulsively competitive, watched as my classmates took turns at the rope, other kids holding the bottom of the rope to steady it for whomever was climbing. I wanted to ring the stupid bell so badly, so badly that I almost felt like crying or yelling. I wanted it. But I too had never gone farther than halfway up, my shaking arms and fatigued muscles just not able to go on. I could not even really figure out what to do with my legs, they just felt useless and heavy.

Stupid rope.


After watching one of the big sturdy crew-cutted farm boys grunt and groan and pull himself to the top, the bell clanging and echoing as he bashed it, everyone yelling out in enthusiastic support, something in me geared up. After he descended, grim-faced, I walked over to the rope and put a hand on it, and gave it the stink-eye. There was NO REASON why I could not do this. If anyone else here could, I could. Enough. My turn now.

I jumped up high, and grabbed on, my friends holding the swinging end of the rope. I did not look up nor down. I was just going to climb, and I watched my hands grip, one after the other, and I pretended I was a machine, made to climb, unstoppable.

The first half was not so bad; I got there faster and easier than I ever had before. But then the same old feeling came, the pull towards the ground, the urge to drop my arms down and hang loosely so the tension would stop. I clung there for a minute, and I closed my eyes. People were saying things but all I heard was a mess of sound, with no words coming through, just noise.

Keep going. Pull up. Pull up. Pull uuuuuuuup.

Oh, god, it was so hard. My arms were shimmying, my hands were sweating, I was holding on for dear life now. There was no way. I didn’t know what to do. I was so far up, and the floor was so far down.

I looked up. There was the bell, hanging there shining, waiting, about a yard away from where I clung to the rope, terrified. Everyone was yelling at me, but I couldn’t tell if they were angry, or scared, or happy.



One last mighty push up from who knows where, as fast as I could before sense and physics took over for good. Up up up up up up up UP. Now within reach. Just. Almost. Within. Reach.



I reached up with my right hand, and two fingertips brushed the very bottom of the bell, and it made a small but bright “Ding!” Yes! Yes! Yes! Damn, I did it!! But I had extended out too far, and in reaching up, my left hand lost its hold on the rope and I started to slide, fast, my right hand now uselessly trying to help stop my pathetic trajectory downwards. Ahhhh! BURN BURN BURN BURN! Pain shot through my hands and forearms and legs, and I did the instinctual.

I let go.

I don’t know how high I was up when I fell off the rope, but I remember looking down and seeing everyone looking up at me, with big o-shaped mouths, and I remember for just the smallest fraction of a second, feeling like I was flying and that maybe I would just somehow magically swoop up and take a spin around the perimeter of the gym ceiling. That would be cool.

The next thing I remember is black. Just seeing nothing but black with sort of dull grey sparkles, and that I couldn’t breathe, the wind knocked out of me from the hard hit to the floor. My luck being what it is, that day the cute perky enthusiastic young student gym teacher from UW forgot to put the blue mat under the rope. When I opened my eyes, all I could see were faces and the lights from the ceiling. The freaked out young teacher was talking to me, but I didn’t have the breath to answer her.

Eventually, the kids were sent back to the classroom, and the principal and the school nurse came in. I vaguely remember my head aching really badly, and someone helping me to sit up. The next thing I recall was a bright white light. Not from me dying, no, not yet folks,just from my mom opening the gym doors coming in to get me, and the sunlight from the hallway windows streaming in for a moment. I walked out with her, very slowly, and we went to the doctor’s.

Outside of some excellent bumps and bruises and some wicked red rope burns, I was OK. I never climbed that rope again, or any rope ever again for that matter, but sometimes when I went into the gym I would look up at that bell, squinting. I got you, you damn metal bastard. I got you.