One day, though, my class of thirty or so was led into the gym, where five ropes were dangling from the ceiling. At the top of each rope, seemingly inches away from the dizzyingly-high roof, was a metal circle.
Coach Hill separated us into lines at each rope, and all the blood left my head as I realized the task of the day. We had to climb the rope to the top and bang the metal circle with our fists.
They can't, I thought. They couldn't. Because if they'd asked me what I needed to climb that rope, my list would have included a harness, eighteen crampons and a Sherpa. Where was the preparation? I wondered. We should be comparing and contrasting various techniques, double-checking our safety gear, or stretching the muscles that we'd overtax in this odd little skill.
The first kid in each line scurried to their ropes as Coach Hill hit the stopwatch. Oh, you are fucking kidding me, I thought. We're actually going to be timed doing something I've never attempted in my life? Being fourth in line I had approximately two minutes to figure out what the fuck to do. In terms of sheer panic, this was roughly equivalent to James Bond trying to defuse a nuclear bomb while Jaws hit him in the head with a rock. Next they'd just casually drop us out of an airplane, and I'd plummet 40,000 miles to my death while trying to figure out if there's some sort of cord to pull or if I need to flap.
I'd noticed this earlier in P. E.: rather than teaching us things, we were assumed to have already learned them, then judged on our ability. It didn't make sense. I mean, all the other classes give you lessons that you're quizzed about later on. On the first day of History class you aren't led into a room that you can't leave until you've named fourteen factors that led to the Boer wars.
I watched as some of the kids swung up the ropes like monkeys. Where were we supposed to have learned this skill? I wondered. If I'd had parents, would I know how to do this? It didn't seem likely, as if after downing dayglo-orange macaroni and cheese all the neighborhood moms strung up thirty pounds of old hemp from the rafters of the house. But some of the kids had obviously done this before. I catalogued the strategies. The fastest way, clearly, was hands-only. You grab the rope, then just keep pulling yourself higher and higher through sheer arm strength. I quickly crossed this off the possibilities, since I had to enlist my sister's help to open a 7-Up. The alternative was the inchworm technique: you grab the rope, squish your body together, squeeze the rope between your feet, then straighten out and grab the rope higher up. It divided the stress onto two body parts, which seemed easier, though even tossing in the rest of them would have still left the odds around twenty-thousand to four.
My group approached the ropes as Coach Hill reset his stopwatch. Dude, I thought, you're going to need a calendar for this. I grabbed on, closed my eyes, and went for it, maybe singing "Inchworm" in my head. Mike Slattery, the blond jock, veritably scampered to the top, and various nerds, geeks and losers followed. While I wasn't a monkey, I also wasn't Alex Bor, the chubby Russian kid who came to school with a brown briefcase. I gave up maybe four feet from the top and nobody even noticed.
I wasn't sure if it was exertion or relief that had me giddy, but it seemed like class ended seconds later. "Good job, guys," Coach Hill said. "Tomorrow we're playing baseball."
Everybody cheered except Alex and me. Was that the sport with the bat, and the ridiculous misuse of real estate? The other kids excitedly ran off to the shower while I tried to regroup. Even if I somehow figured out how to hit a moving target with a sliver of wood, I thought, why would I want to?
"If you pump your arm a few times, will your bicep get even bigger?" I asked Coach Hill, and I resigned myself to living one day at a time.