Recalling the Rope

I never understood what the rope was about. There must have been some twenty-five or thirty feet of it that dangled from the rafters to the floor in the gymnasium of Annie Camp Middle School. In order to pass seventh-grade physical education class, I was expected to climb it.

I never made it past the halfway point. In my eyes, reaching the top would result in nothing more than a thigh-scratching, rope-burning ride to the bottom.

The term "physical education" was a bit of a misnomer for the late 1970s classes offered in the school I attended. There was plenty of physical activity all right--balls flew, bats cracked, and boys ran, all in a whirring, sweaty, chaotic frenzy--but there was very little education. The coaches must have skipped their master's courses in pedagogy.

I learned as early as the third grade that you were expected to know how to play any sport that was put before you in phys ed. If you didn't know the rules, tough. Any idiot who was foolish enough to ask would be laughed off the court, shunned from the field, and taunted in the locker room. The class never addressed good nutrition, desirable heart rates, proper form, or training techniques. It was more akin to an hour in which your peers assessed your popularity quotient through your athletic prowess.

Enough whining about adolescence. Back to the rope. What was that about?

Steve Carson wore the coolest tube socks of any boy in our gym class, and he was the most popular boy in school. He was also one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet. Steve became the star quarterback of our high-school football team, went on to marry a member of cheerleading squad, and eventually became a teacher and assistant coach at our high school. I haven't seen him in twenty years, but I decided to call him up and ask about his recollection of the rope, its purpose, and its status in America's secondary-school gymnasiums today.

Steve immediately remembered the rope. "When kids got to the top of it, they wrote their names on the beam that supported it," Steve said with dismay. "Aside from that, I can't think of a single reason why we did that. I was, and I still am, petrified of heights. I don't think I ever had the nerve to write my name up there."

Steve has two children progressing through the same public school system that educated us, and he says the landscape has changed in regard to today's physical-education courses. His kids don't climb the rope, and he also informed me that they no longer engage in the game of Kill Ball. (The primary objective of Kill Ball was to hurl balls at the opposing team. When you hit a fellow student, he was rendered "out." The last man standing was the winner.)

According to Steve, classes are more focused on nutrition now and coaches are moving away from team sports. But these changes haven't found their way to all of the school systems in America. A jury in Cincinnati, Ohio, recently found a school district liable when a ten-year-old boy lost his grip on a rope during gym class and fell twenty-five feet. The child broke two vertebrae in his back and had to wear a brace and undergo weeks of physical therapy.

What is the rope supposed to teach us? In the case of Annie Camp Middle School, I suppose the rope could have been an attempt to help build upper arm strength. Maybe it was supposed to cure Steve of his fear of heights. Maybe it was intended to inspire and challenge me to stretch beyond my limits. It fulfilled none of those aims. If anything, the rope kept me out of the gym for much of my youth.

In my early thirties, I repudiated the negative athletic experiences from the 1970s and reclaimed the gym. I now have one of Kenyon's championship swimmers to coach me in the pool. I take yoga classes. I lift weights. I walk the Kokosing Gap Trail. And all of this takes place in or around Kenyon's Ernst Center, where there's not a rope in sight.

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