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Awards / NOAH KAPLAN – 2019 ROAM AWARDS WINNER – Essay for Lessons Category

Noah Kaplan

Gravity

When I started teaching English at the high school in Denver I attended just 7 years earlier, I told myself that learning was like climbing. Everything was like climbing. It was hard. But if you worked hard, you’d arrive.  A hackneyed metaphor and yet, it perseveres. The student as mountain climber, pulling themselves up, employing a series of small, seemingly insignificant and sometimes painful actions that lead to your ah ha summit—exhilaration, achievement, growth, an ability to see farther than before. It lives on because it works. It’s true. Keep going. You’ll make it. Set a goal. The right shoes, some desire, you’ll make it.

But make sure you have time to train.  Make sure you are shown nature (no longer are we born there, we must be shown). Also, it is helpful to have the unusual—and at times baffling—impulse to see what others haven’t, to push into the discomfort of the unknown with the desire to know it, and at times to put oneself in imminent danger with hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars of equipment hanging from your waist.

Public classrooms can feel like climbing barefoot, or like everyone is trying to wear the same harness at the same time, working our way up our own rocks, distracted belayers everywhere.

But there are cracks. Imperfections we find to hold on to and stand on, the rests they offer (how easy it would be to do nothing). The features shift every day as we test what is possible. Holds break, we stumble, say can’t, trying to recognize opportunity and take it. It can be all that is beautiful and broken and impossible, looking up at it, in this baking, growling, pulsing human story. Each kid their own subject. Their own summit. A sixteen-year-old with bruises on her neck. A 14-year-old with grey hair. The kid that likes to hit other kids. The kid with the scary poetry. The kids that cry. The occasional kid who finds plastic holds in the city. Esther who draws pictures with me lonely at lunch, in Denver, the churning queen city—and these are her children, her fruit.  Angry boys unwilling to sit, rooms full of no and yes. Won and lost lotteries. Do more, say more, scratch more, think—can I use the bathroom? Can I get a drink? 

.:.   .:.   .:.

I love to rock climb and I even, sometimes, can. I know what knots you need and when you need them. I know what I can do if the rope gets stuck or if the rope’s too short, or if you drop something important. I love the long meandering thumbs of the South Platte basin, dropping my heels up its slabby domes, hanging from the back of my hands on Rocky Mountain peaks, riding boulders in the dark.  I can envision from the ground where I will go, how I should move. I push myself gently onto the sharp end, looking for foreboding fruit in every autumn fall.  And I am often scared. 

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A few summers I worked as a climbing guide and instructor at a Jewish adventure summer camp in the Rockies. Before the summer began each year, I would spend the month leading up to the start of camp with the other guides, scouting trips to take with the kids, learning to trust one another, watching sunsets, huddling around fires, bunkering in tents during rainstorms. 

Moty Alkalay, a dark-haired rock animal was our leader, an Israeli hard man with an unquenchable thirst for all things rock climbing. He had just spent the past 4 years developing “Never Never Land”, a steep, fully bolted 1300 ft 5.13c on the towering sandstone cliffs of Wadi Rum in Jordan. He spent the first week of camp building a punishing 18-foot overhanging crimp board. Will the kids use it? Of course, the kids will us it. The kids never used it.

Moty was sturdy as can be, playful and loud when he wasn’t singing softly in Hebrew, looking over the red rocks of the Hayman Burn area outside Deckers, CO, where the camp lived. 15 years ago, this area was home to the largest wildfire in Colorado history, burning 130,000 acres. To get to camp, you drive down this dusty, winding dirt road that hugs a crumbling hillside in the burnt echo of a one-time inferno. As you drive, life slowly gets its footing again. You notice the trees start to gain their leaves and pines back. They begin to show they still have their backbones, they still have their hair, and the creek is running strong, and you got to feeling like you were headed into an oasis, a safe haven, the shade and the wet air and Moty tells me this is from where the forest fire was fought, this is why it survived like it did and it really was beautiful, unlike any other place, the sky so big and bright and the rusty rocks with their spines, and the violent storms that would roll over, and the flowers everywhere and the raspberries that grew like weeds. 

We arrive to scout Devil’s Head in the Rampart Range of the South Platte, a granite playground crisscrossed by winding dirt bike paths and wandering trails through an aged coniferous forest. South Platte rock climbing can be steep or not, but I usually found myself runout on long slabs, blocks of large overhanging granite, or in tight corners that give you access to roofs that clear to lower angles.

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At school, I see her in my class, back for the first time in a week. I notice some bruising on her neck, but it leaves my mind quickly because there is so much to think about for a first year teacher who doesn’t know what he is doing. At 25 years old, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to live under a roof at all, yet alone go back to high school. I didn’t do what I may have done had I known more. Ignorance leads to suffering. I just saw the bruises and then shortly after she was gone, coloring outside the lines in my memory. 

I convinced myself in a moment that love had made the bruises. Eager lips put to work by the clumsy passion of adolescence still unaware that it can break things and bring blood to surface. But the bruises were far too large in my mind, too strangely shaped. I’d wake up in the dark before my alarm in a cold sweat and knew there could not have been tenderness in them, just whoever had failed towards abuse because it’s easier to be hard than it is to be soft in this world.

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I set up an 11d corner late in the day, which follows a jagged, blocky hand crack to a roof out right. Something I may take a beating on. But I keep moving, scraping my body clumsily, and only slightly panicked up the strange open book. I feel good. It feels good to be there, moving the way I am. Challenged but never shut down, working on the beautiful rock, each move finite and forever, each moment won or lost. It is what it should feel like, to me, this dance with possibility, this holding of the ocean at bay. To find some freedom in my human cage, to push space, to put one hand into the sky after another, to crawl in this barren place, to feel the full tilt of the earth, to consider my limitations and to scrape and scream them back, you either do or you don’t—you climb or you fall. 

.:.   .:.   .:.

I ask Jahlil to talk with me in the hall. He looks at me and rolls his eyes into the back of his head so that all I can see are the icy whites and they tremble—defiance— pure and clear and white hot. He would come sometimes and smile, scowl, or sleep in the back. Pretty quiet, never really had a problem, but closed off. Guarded. Didn’t like school. I’d try and wake him sometimes, but you couldn’t really. He was not impressed by my earnestness or effort either. I could not help him. Because I was me and he was him and that was just how it was and still is.

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What you believe will in the end determine what will happen to you. Your mind will often be your limitation, before body. What you see, what you believe matters most. See each moment’s potential in time and execute. Stay centered, loose and tight, when all is telling you you can’t, or even that you shouldn’t, that there will be some unfortunate consequence to your meager efforts—how easy it would be to fall, to fail. 

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In Devils Head, clinging to the granite wall, I clear the roof and make the last few moves to gain the upper slab, a period of easier climbing before the finish. Sweating, breathing heavily, bleeding in small places. Alive and happy and conquering. And then a see something strange. I notice that the rope has come entirely untied, my figure eight follow through clinging to its skeleton by a fingernail, and I have the wall in both hands 70 feet off the ground. 

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Then Johnathon died in his sleep. We put a rose on his desk and wrote letters to his mom. I played Dixieland jazz as we colored and some of the children cried, and others didn’t and I remembered how giant he was, how he seemed so unstoppable, how he side-hugged the girls in class, and how he liked the library because it was quiet. And Merissa, who said that this class made her tired and I turned to her and said me too. And Elijah who was living in a hotel with his mom and couldn’t be there, who said to me that high school was hard and how nobody looked at you. And Ambrosia who preferred her mother in the custody battle with her abusive father, but mom might lose it, addicted and fraught as she was. 

.:.   .:.   .:.

I could have gotten tired that day, fallen at my perceived limit, sat back on a rope that wouldn’t have been there, and the thing would have slid right through me and we both could have fallen seamlessly to the ground, in an instant, bouncing once on the corner and down again. Gravity is indifferent to you.  It is not hard to die from a fall. People die from falling all the time. improper footwear, dark surroundings, uneven ground, lack of exercise, unfinished knots.

.:.   .:.   .:.

We finish Romeo and Juliet. The students read their personal essays aloud for extra credit, to tell the fresh stories of the world. Stories we have never and always heard. When we go over Shakespeare’s language and I ask them to make their own sentences with it, Cadence says “Mark, Thou art a Unicorn”.  Art. Are. You. We talk about the manic love of a 13 year old—and Mercutio’s mind eager and light and unbearable, wanting it all and needing nothing, but really needing it though, and what it means to die for love. Find what you love and let it kill you. She draws a unicorn and hugs me awkwardly on her way out the room and then I am alone for a moment. And then I am not.

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Ask yourself, what does the rock offer you? Be thankful for imperfections carved out by time, corners to pull and cracks in the wall to shove hands and feet in. This might hurt but you will be stronger for it. It is a sparse environment, like a night sky—there are few friends, but remember the longer you look, the more stars appear. What you have is your body and everything else. Keep your feet high. Make sure that you’re doing more pushing with your legs than pulling with your arms. Conserve your energy. You have to focus, find your center, tilt it, do your slow, breathy dance with gravity. Keep breathing. When your leg starts to shake or your mind wander, when the fear creeps in or your hands feel sweaty keep moving up, keep doing it, keep breathing (remind yourself of this forgotten reflex), remember the important things, the only way to make it work. Stay here. Stay calm.



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