Commentary: A Step Too Far

The trapeze catch was the first activity in the P.E. ropes course that I was truly daunted by. Even though I do not have acrophobia—extreme fear of heights—the mere thought of launching myself forward to catch a thin bar dangling twenty feet above the ground threatened to turn my knees to water.

Standing on the balcony, I loosened my grip on the pole beside me as I prepared myself to jump, only to tighten my hands again as I glanced down at the faraway floor. I thought to myself, “What if I can’t catch the trapeze? What if my gym teacher somehow doesn’t catch me with the belay? What if I jump wrong and hit the balcony or the rope next to me?”

My instinct insisted that everything about this was wrong; my brain screamed at me to get off of the balcony before I fell off the edge, which ironically was exactly what I was expected to do: fall. After standing there with bent, wobbly knees for nearly a whole minute, I was finally able to swallow enough of my fear and take the leap. I was consumed by panic the moment my feet left the balcony, and I felt a dramatic drop in my stomach. My gym teacher then tightened the belay rope, and my brief plummet jerked into a slow descent, my chest heaving with anxious breaths.

As someone who is not acrophobic, I thought that I could only imagine what it would be like for the students who had that fear. However, as the class progressed through the unit, I no longer had to imagine. I witnessed classmates stand right at the edge of the ropes and tremble in their harnesses, struggling to gather courage as the gym teachers’ shouts of encouragement from below morphed into urges to hurry up. Students providing moral support were viewed as obtrusive, their stares of anticipation embarrassing the climber. More than once, a climber broke and backed down from the activity, only to be called up as the first climber in the next class.

Many schools want students to achieve a sense of teamwork through their ropes courses, but that aspect of the activity is lost at Andover, as climbers are belayed by their gym teacher rather than their peers. Placing their life into the hands of gym teachers—literally, since the gym teachers are holding the belay ropes—is duly terrifying for almost anyone, not to mention the students who have acrophobia.

For these students, gym class became the class to dread. The ropes course activities were both physically and mentally demanding. In addition to strength and endurance, every climbing activity involved the fearful act of jumping, whether it was swinging through the air from one platform to another or jumping off after completing the climb. Despite many classmates voicing a fear of falling, each student was forced to complete every single activity.

The course need not be completely removed from the curriculum, however. Not all students reacted negatively to the situation. Some thoroughly enjoyed the activities, eagerly redoing many of them blindfolded. The unit was easy for those students to complete, but it disregarded the debilitating fears that other students expressed time and again. Existing units like cardio and drown-proofing can be highly beneficial to students in their futures, as well as challenging them at the same time.

Realistically speaking, however, after completing the ropes course, most of us will not need to know how to swing from a nearly twenty foot tall balcony to a hanging cargo net, or how to walk across a ceiling pipe with no handholds. The unit created unnecessary terror for those who have trouble performing physical activities, especially at such great heights. Students should learn to deal with being put in uncomfortable situations, but requiring that students complete the ropes course in order to graduate is not the way to do it.

Emily Huang is a new Lower from Andover, Mass. Contact the author at