Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Grade 6 Writing:
All about Me: Bio-Poems are up in the classroom.
Narratives are published, including double narratives. Here's my attempt:

Leap of Faith
Bill Stewart III

            Before the leap, there I was, hands clenched on the pillar, legs shaking, and all I could think about, other than my own survival, was my dad and his fear of heights. Is such a fear hereditary?  
            How did I get here? How did I climb to the top of this quivering pillar of pine?  What inspired me to throw myself into space, to attempt to high-five a black foam hand 36 feet off the ground?  With no net?
            I blamed it on my father.

            As I had begun my ascent of the Leap of Faith, I had flashed back to our hike in the Grand Canyon a quarter century ago.  My dad has always been acrophobic, afraid of heights, and this trip to the canyon was something of a test for him, a way to push himself.  We decided to hike down to the Colorado River and back in one day, something many, many signs warned us against attempting throughout our descent. We were both very fit, and the thought of a 12 mile hike, even in very hot, dry weather, did not phase us. My dad had been a professional distance runner and I was in great shape from playing Ultimate Frisbee and running every day.  We brought two liters of water and a container of gorp and ignored the signs. 

            My first steps up the ladder on the Leap of Faith were relatively easy. I climb ladders at home to clean the gutters. 

            The first miles of my hike with my dad all those years ago, through two tunnels and a few switchbacks, were also easy going, and we had lots of company in the form of other tourist day-hikers and a few pack mules.  Over the next couple of miles, we must have seen eight or nine signs warning us to turn back, that a day hike to the river and back was extremely dangerous. The number of tourist hikers diminished to zero. The trail got steeper and the canyon air grew hotter. My dad began to get visibly nervous.

            When I reached the top of the Leap of Faith ladder, I switched over to climbing staples. The staples were on either side of the pole, big enough to give my feet a solid purchase and for my hands to grab easily. As I climbed the staples toward the top, the pole began to tremble. I tried to minimize the  shaking, but the rhythm of my climb kept the post wobbling.  As I climbed, I began to notice just how high I suddenly was.  The ladder was far below me now, and I was past the point where I would be able to land without injuring myself should I fall. I was harnessed in with a top rope going to my back, but I could not feel its support and was not confident that it would hold my weight. I was sure the harnesses and rope would hold most sixth graders, but I was double their weight.  That was when I began to wonder if I would become paralyzed, as my dad had been in the canyon.

            We were walking down the Bright Angel trail, passing a few serious hikers with well-stocked backpacks and mules laden with gear. We had passed Indian Garden, four and half miles in. We rounded a bend and were heading toward a series of switchbacks when my dad froze. He pasted himself against the rock wall and back-pedaled away from the side of the trail with the drop. He had looked down ahead of where we were and noticed a point where the trail seemed to disappear.  It paralyzed him. He couldn’t move down, and he couldn’t even really go back up. He wanted to scramble back up the scree where there was no trail, and he was in danger of slipping down and sliding into real danger. I tried to talk him through it. The trail couldn’t just end. It had been there for years. It hadn’t rained in days so it couldn’t have washed out. We hadn’t felt an earthquake, so it couldn’t have slid away.  The trail was still there.
            He wouldn’t listen. If he couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist. If it didn’t exist, he would be falling off the edge to his doom. We were stuck.

            Meanwhile, on the Leap of Faith, I was stuck. I had gotten up to the last staple and had nowhere to go. There was no platform. There were no hand-holds. The diameter of the pole at the top was about eight inches, and I have wide shoes.  Not only that, but even when I managed to get one foot off the final staple and onto the top of the pole, I couldn’t lift the other foot. I was paralyzed. I looked down and saw the enormous, gaping abyss beneath my feet.  Every move I made created more wobble in the pole, and as I looked down, my right leg began to shake.  I was really stuck.
            How had my dad gotten through his fear?  He had been completely paralyzed too. I had tried to rationalize the situation to my dad, but fear is not rational. I had used logic, but fear is not logical.  Finally, we had waited. I had asked my dad to watch a pair of mules as they headed toward what appeared to be the washed out trail.  We spectated as the mules approached the drop off. It seemed that a huge section of the trail had slid off the cliff. My dad seemed fascinated, both repelled and compelled at the same time. He may have wanted to shout a warning to the mules and their wranglers, but instead watched, mute, as they walked along visible, then invisible trail, showing us that, what had appeared to be washed out trail, was in fact an optical illusion. The trail continued. What logic and rationalization had failed to do, the evidence of his own eyes was now doing for my dad.  After the mules completed their journey through the impossible, my dad was ready to give it a try.  He calmed his shaking legs and started to walk.  He talked through his fear, making light of it, comparing his own slim girth with the width of a fully loaded mule.  We would make it past that point of paralysis. We would make it to the river and back in one day, despite the warning signs: Turn back Now!  Despite the danger from the sun and the even more powerful danger signs from within. My dad had, if not conquered, then at least triumphed temporarily over his fear of heights, his acrophobia.

            If he could do it, so could I. My students called up with advice from below me, using logic and rational thinking to help me achieve the summit. But fear is not logical or rational. I heard advice on technique: put your right foot up on top of the pole and raise your left foot up to the top slowly, sliding it along the pole. But first I needed to stop my legs from shaking. I focused on the trees, on the pole, to center myself. I stopped the wobble, and remembered my dad stopping the tremors in his legs. I slid my left foot up to the top, and thought about watching the mules walking along the invisible path. I stood at the top of the Leap of Faith pole and looked up at the black foam hand above me. I would have to leap up and out toward the hand if I hoped to give it a high-five. I thought about those first steps my dad had taken after his paralysis on the Bright Angel trail. What had gotten him through?  It wasn’t his mind; it was his heart. He saw and believed, and that was what allowed him to leap.
            I counted down, aloud: “Three, two, one…” I said.
            I didn’t jump.
            I listened to the reaction of my students.
            “Is he afraid?”
            “He couldn’t be afraid.”
            “I think he is.”
            “Doesn’t he know it’s safe? We did it.”
            “Come on! You can do it, Mr. Stewart!”
            “Yeah, you can do it.”
            “Five… four…” more and more student voices chimed in, “three… two… one…”
            Not down. Up and out if I was going to hit the high-five hand. Then parachute to the ground, suspended from the rope harnessed to my back.  Believe.
            I coiled myself a little bit and saw that washed-out Grand Canyon trail in my mind’s eye. I could jump it, over the abyss, through time, to the other side. I stilled my breath and quieted the pole, then leapt.
            High-five, Dad.

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