PE: Can You Handle It?

“Oh, and by the way, you see that long black pipe 30 feet up in the air? Well, you have to walk across that before you can graduate.” Such was the statement bestowed upon five very terrified Freshmen by our oh-so-aloof Blue Key at the gym on our very second day of Andover. It seemed more of a myth, a hazing ritual, or an obsolete activity (like rappelling down the Bell tower) than a course requirement. “Well, can you hold on to anything?” I asked, my pupils dilating with fear. “Gee I don’t remember. I think you can hold on to your harness. I’m not really sure.” Was it even possible to maintain balance on a pipe suspended at such an altitude? Would this be my early end at age 15? As my mind filled to the brim with historical, English, scientific, linguistic, and mathematical studies, my terror about this climb pushed itself somehow into the moth-infested, cobwebbed attic of my mind. That is, until last week. Again in the same nonchalant fashion which sometimes provides for more chills than melodrama at its height, our Physical Education teacher said, “Oh yeah, and in a couple of days, you’ll get to walk across that pipe.” What was I going to do? Where has my childhood gone? Oh, why, oh why, did I have to stop nursing? Acrophobia does not normally affect me. In fact, the highlight of some of my middle school days involved indoor rock climbing each weekend. Yet, somehow the foreboding presence of the pipe planted in my mind the same impression as a squirrel being chased across the Quads. For every PE class spent on land, relief washed over me, the kind I feel when a teacher forgets to administer a test. Two days immediately before the pipe walk, every nook and cranny of my mind was consumed with the anxiety that had been banished from its city limits to a remote, rustic barnyard in western Wyoming, not just eastern Wyoming. Finally, the day of the walk-in-the-sky arrived. I watched from the back of the line as student after student successfully climbed up a swaying, rickety rope ladder, navigated over some crossbeams, and traversed the pipe. The only advice I could extract from any of them was portentous: “Don’t look down.” There are only so many places one can look. When ultimately it was my turn, my legs shook, my heart pounded, and some hairs stood on end. Yet, something inside my head said, “Keep going! You’re doing it! Keep going!” It felt like liberation from slavery as courage vanquished its pusillanimous opposite. Left leg glided across the pipe. Right leg. Left leg. Right leg. And before I realized it, I had reached the end of the pipe, and to put quite frankly, it was jumping time. The pipe walk had become a cakewalk. It was one gym-ceiling shuffle for a petrified Lower but one enormous galumph for Phillips Academy. I watched my classmates. They stared in fear at the pipe. Some clung tightly to the bar, unwilling to walk across, while others quaked in even more fear than I—yes, it is possible. But each person seemed to overcome his fears and actually crossed it. Sure, “building character” has been a phrase used as tritely as any other cliché, but for me, the walk across the pipe indeed built character. Success met with unmatched adrenaline. Feelings swelled up inside me that I could survive any challenge posed to me. Following President Bush into his next war seemed no problem. (Later, after adrenaline subsided, I reconsidered my alacrity.) Jane Goodall was quoted once as saying, “The long hours spent with [the chimpanzees] in the forest have enriched my life beyond measure.” I felt like these short minutes spent “roughing it” as an Andover spelunker enriched my life. Sure, some people climb every mountain, but I conquered my fears by crossing every pipe. (Well, just one, but what is the new media without hyperbole?) Some people believe PE should be eliminated as a requirement; some vehemently disagree. I wish to withhold my opinion on this subject for now, but crossing that pipe inspired my self-confidence like nothing else I have ever done. And that one activity made my day—even the rest of my week. For overall, courage is a lesson you cannot find nose-deep in book. You can only find it by conquering your fears, a pursuit, in one form or another, that surely belongs along with many of the other Andover lessons.