Student Well-Being Opinion

Teaching With High Ropes and Wedgies: Lessons From a 7th Grade Camping Trip

By Marilyn Rhames — June 11, 2015 5 min read
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I’m no newbie to high ropes. I’ve done them before—with a fair amount of skill. But packing 20 extra pounds of post-pregnancy weight and another 10 pounds from grief-eating after the deaths of my beloved uncle and mother-in-law during one dreadful week in May, I’m much heavier than I’d like to be.

Isn’t camp is all about building relationships, taking risks, being vulnerable, and believing in oneself? So as a chaperon on my school’s 7th grade camping trip yesterday, I decided to venture onto the 30-foot high ropes.

My belayer—the person on the ground who is tethered to the climber’s safety harness through a long bungee rope—was a 20-something year old white man. His job was to tighten the rope and counterbalance the climber, especially in the event he/she falls. When he saw me, he asked one of my 20-something year old female colleagues if he could tether himself to her for extra grounding.

“I’m not trying to be mean, but...” he said to me.

“I know I’m extra size, so I get it,” I said, as the only person with a gray band on my harness instead of red or blue.

Students and colleagues were all gathered around, many with cameras in tow.

I was proud of myself for the speed and agility with which I made it up the pole. I mounted the landing log with a moderate measure of struggle, and my fans below were cheering me on. After taking an intentional breath, I grabbed the hanging rope and slowly placed one foot onto the spongy high wire; then I slide my other foot onto the other wire. My legs were shaking uncontrollably in an attempt to find my balance.

That’s when I heard the belayer telling the teacher he was tethered to: “One time I had a 340-pound man who climbed up on the rope and, man, it was hard. I couldn’t even...”

That’s all I heard before I fell. Was he comparing me to a man who was 120 pounds heavier than me? And if I heard him 30-feet up, weren’t all the students and teachers below also hearing this story?

When I fell—or rather gave up—I landed square on top of one of the wires, the rope wedging itself right smack in the crack of my butt. So now I’m suspended in the air with my size-16 butt cheeks portruding from each side of the wobbly line.

That’s when the math teacher called out my name and said, “Smile!” FLASH.

After some desperate wiggling, I managed to break free from my high-wire thong. I didn’t have the upper-body strength to pull myself back up vertically, so I asked the belayer to release the rope and let me down.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to tear off my helmet and whack him with it. I wanted to shout, “I heard what you said, you little twerp!”

Instead I thanked him and her on the ground for their obligatory “good jobs,” and I coolly walked away.

I returned to the wall climbing part of the woods and sat on a splintered bench. Earlier, I had tried to climb that wall and failed—but so did several other people, so it wasn’t a big deal. And the 50-something year old woman who was my belayer hadn’t asked to be tethered to someone else before I climbed.

I stepped out of my harness and then sat back on that freakin’ worn-out red wooden bench, parked right next to shrubs full of mosquitos that attacked my legs despite multiple applications of bug stray, long pants, and tall socks. I silently recalled every detail of the fiasco on the high ropes. I threw more mental coals on the bonfire raging in my heart. But I refused to cry, for tears would have been gasoline to the blaze.

After 15 minutes on that wretched bench, I noticed that a kid with autism (who would like nothing more than to walk the school corridors in his Spiderman costume) was rapidly climbing the 50-foot pole for the zip line. Everybody was getting excited, some chanting “Spidy, Spidy.” I got up and cheered, too. Seeing this fearful kid heroically leap off the platform and zip through the sky brought me so much joy. I thought, If only his mother could see him now!

That’s when I realized that my own daughter, who is in this 7th grade group, still hadn’t zip lined.

Much earlier, I had put all the kids waiting for the zip line in a line order to end the confusion about who would go next. Well, my daughter said that a group of popular kids had cut the line, and she decided not to protest. (She and her small group of friends are the class outliers, definitely not considered “cool.”)

I chided her for not speaking up for herself, and then I went over to the students to set the record straight. I told them that my daughter and one of her friends had waited long before they got there and that they needed to give up their helmets. The cool kids mean-mugged me and smacked their lips, but they complied.

How great it was to see my 13-year-old daughter grace across the sky!

Now I knew what I had to do. I couldn’t chastise my adolescent child for not speaking up to her peers, when I hadn’t spoken up for myself.

I marched over to the high ropes and I asked the belayer if I could speak with him. I called over the female teacher who had been tethered to him, as well. I told him that I understood why he might have felt the need to single me out as the only person in the group who required extra support, but it was NOT okay that he proceeded to recount a horror story about being teethed to a 340-pound man while I was on the high ropes. I told him I heard everything he said, and that he embarrassed me and hurt my feelings. I added that his words were a big reason I lost focus and fell off the ropes so soon.

He turned red and apologized. The female colleague gave me a hug, saying she hadn’t even made the connection between his story and me.

I told the belayer that I hoped he learned from this experience so that he never makes another woman feel bad about her weight.

By then, the male counselor from my school wandered over to ask if there was a problem. “No, it’s just a girl-thing,” I said, walking away.

This incident hurt, but I’m better for it. I’m grateful for the reminder of how it feels to be publicly humiliated by someone in authority; now I am more cognizant of the power I have to severely damage a student.

This situation also made me realize the enormous amount of courage it sometimes takes to confront certain people who’ve hurt you. I now have an more empathy for students like my daughter whose natural inclination is to stay silent in the midst of pain.

I refused to let a five-minute negative episode destroy an otherwise fantastic overnight camping trip, replete with campfire, s’more making, and glow-in-the-dark attire. In fact, during the kickball game this morning, a quiet girl who I don’t know very well, put a totally different spin on my high-ropes performance.

“You’re, like, the best mom ever for getting on the high ropes,” she said, out of the blue. “My mom would never do that. She won’t even get on a slow roller coaster.”


*Photo added on 6/14/15

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.