I’ve never been much for taking on physical challenges, especially when there was risk involved. Skydiving, mountain climbing, and other extreme sports have zero appeal to me.
That’s why it was such a big deal for me to challenge myself in high school to participate in the annual ropes course experience with my Peer Counseling group. The after-school club (which centered more on counseling each other than peers outside the group) was based on mutual sharing and trust, so each spring all members spent a day doing team-building exercises at a local ropes course.
The on-the-ground exercises — like the classic “Human Knot,” where a tangled mess of people has to unwind itself without letting go of each other’s hands — were sometimes frustrating, but not a big deal. It was the high elements, which involved climbing high into the California Redwoods attached to harnesses and cables, that sent my blood pressure soaring.
There was one particular exercise that my best friend, Katie, and I dreaded every year: The Xylophone. We completed the exercise in partners. One partner began climbing the steel pegs on a 50-foot tree, while the other watched from the ground, coaching and encouraging her. The first partner climbed onto a high wooden platform and waited as the second partner ascended and joined her on the platform. That was the “easy” part. The hard part was walking together across a rope ladder suspended horizontally and attached to a tree another 50 feet away. The rest of the Peer Counseling members spotted us from the ground and cheered us on.
Katie and I, each wearing brightly colored helmets and harnesses, would stand together on the platform, staring out at the daunting task before us. I had a mild fear of heights, and Katie was always more ready to take that first step than I was. Standing shoulder to shoulder, we’d grab each other’s hands, look each other in the eye, and say, “Ready?”
Then we counted out loud together: “One, two, three, STEP.” Simultaneously, we each stepped forward and placed a foot onto the rope “rung” in front of us. Then we used each other’s support to find our balance again. The rungs got farther apart as we advanced, until we had to all but leap together to reach the last one. With each step, my breath and heartbeat quickened, and my muscles tensed.
When we finally reached the last rung of the suspended rope ladder, Katie and I stood together, still holding hands, surveying the tops of the Redwoods and breathing in our victory. “I love you,” we’d say to each other, side-hugging as best we could without falling. Then we’d drop hands and leap into the air, waiting for the yank of our harnesses as they caught us. Our teammates lowered us to the ground and rained hugs and high fives upon us.
Braving The Xylophone was a transformative experience for me, a high-achieving student used to working by herself and avoiding mistakes at all costs. Repeating the exercise every year for four years, I learned persistence, trust, and interdependence. I learned that even when I was terrified to act, I could do it if I wanted to achieve the goal badly enough. I learned that when I fell, I could pull myself up again with the help of someone I trusted, even if it seemed impossible at first.
Each time I conquered The Xylophone, I surprised myself by mustering courage in the face of an obstacle. I practiced relying on someone for my own success, and letting her rely on me. Up high in those California Redwoods, I learned more than I did in any classroom.