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The Rope

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My racing teammate and I had a discussion the other day, evaluating the skills of a guy who had begun riding with our group. My teammate suddenly smiled to herself, and repeated something he had said to her: “Midori seems like a great person and I like her a lot, but she’s absolutely terrifying.” I shook my head in disbelief. “I think it’s just because you’re so sure of yourself,” she added. “He’s probably not used to women like that.” I still can’t believe it. I don’t feel sure of myself. In my mind, I’m still a klutz.

I didn’t do any sports until I was in my late twenties. Sports terrified me as a child. Sports meant choosing teams, and since I was a pariah and always chosen last, sports meant a kind of deep, painful humiliation that made death seem preferable.

I had basically no contact with other children (except my brother) until I entered first grade at the age of five. We hadn’t practiced any sports at home. Recess was okay—I just ran around on the playground and copied the other girls twirling around the playground bars. Gym class, however, was a nightmare from Day One and continued to be a nightmare for as long as I had to take it.

I was bad at everything. I was by far the worst at any activity, any game, any exercise. If I were to watch myself now, as a little kid, awkwardly struggling to do pushups and throw balls for the first time, I would probably find it just as hilarious as all the other kids and teachers did. But at the time it was mortifying.

In second grade, nearsighted and astigmatic, I got glasses. Wearing small, thick glasses is like having tunnel vision. I became even worse at any activities that required peripheral vision, which meant basically all gym activities. I couldn’t catch, I couldn’t throw, I couldn’t kick, and I couldn’t hit any object with any sort of stick.

My myopia and the thickness of my glasses increased in direct proportion to each other with each year that passed. I was like the proverbial sitting duck when we played dodge ball, blindly and stupidly wandering around in circles as if begging to be hit. The kids would save me for last on purpose, then toss a few soft ones at me to see me run, then bombard me with balls that piled up on me until I fell over.

During softball, I would always play the outfield, praying nothing would come my way, and using my glove to ward off any ball that did. One time, against all odds, a pop fly began descending directly toward my glove as I held it up (trying to block the dangerous, terrifying object hurtling toward me at a speed too high to be believed). The disbelief of my unwilling teammates who thought I might actually catch something quickly turned into hilarity as the ball slipped directly between my outstretched, cupped hands, smashed into my Coke-bottle glasses, and toppled me over like a bowling pin.

Did I mention I had asthma? Any physical effort would make me sound like Darth Vader. The other kids would start imitating my heavy breathing, and crack each other up, until the teacher, smiling, would tell us all to cut it out. I would try to breathe quietly, and fail, the teacher would tell me to stop fooling around, and the kids would crack up all over again.

One day our gym teacher untied a rope from the side of the gym and said that each of us was going to climb it. I waited in line, my dread building steadily, until I was at the head of the line, frozen with fear. Then I grabbed the rope and gave it everything I had. I could not move up at all. Not even one inch. I hung there and struggled, trying desperately to pull myself up, sweating, huffing and puffing, my glasses slipping down my nose, my arms shaking with the effort. And not going anywhere. One kid started trying not to laugh. Then suddenly everyone, even the teacher, was howling with laughter. At the end of the class, the teacher said that we would be climbing the rope every week.

Staring hell in the face, I knew drastic action had to be taken. My mom taught grade school across the town. I told her that I needed to practice climbing a rope, and did she have a rope, and could she help me try to climb the rope every evening after she was done teaching, and could we do it where no one else could see us. I didn’t explain any further.

So there we were, my mom and me, my mom baffled but committed, and me grim and determined. This had become a life-and-death struggle. Every evening I would go to my mom’s school, and after everyone had gone home my mom would untie the rope and hold the end while I tried to climb up it. I did not look forward to this, but I knew it must be done.

For many moons I shook and strained at the bottom of the rope, willing myself to move upwards. The weekly gym class humiliation continued. I was becoming resigned to an eternity in rope-climbing hell when one evening, to the great surprise of both my mom, and me I moved upwards a few inches. I felt like I had qualified for Olympic trials. Hope returned to my life.

In the following weeks, I gradually increased my upward mobility. I don’t know who was more shocked: my mother, my gym teacher, my classmates, or me. I don’t think I was fully conscious of it, but this was the beginning of a huge discovery: if you’re bad at something, you can get better. You can set your mind to do it, and work, and keep trying, and improve. Even if you totally suck and it seems impossible. But you have to do the work.

The day I made it to the top of the rope was a great day. Kids actually cheered. I hung onto the top of the rope and squinted down, glasses steaming, and smiled. But the most surprising thing I felt at that moment was how easy it had been.


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