Yesterday may have been my single hardest day of being a teacher since the first one.
My school went on a trip to Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire. After Mt. Fuji in Japan, it’s the second-most climbed mountain in the world. Three teachers (my head of school, a history department colleague, and me), and twenty-two students. A first aid kit, a bunch of walkie talkies, two bottles of water per kid and a bunch of extras in my pack, plus my stash of sunflower seeds and raisins. Those become important later.
One girl on our trip had tremendous difficult climbing, and needed a hand to hold onto. From 9:30 or so until almost 10:30, a colleague of mine did that office, and she did great. At about 10:30, though, his patience was wearing thin, and so I escorted her up the mountain.
To the summit.
It is then that I realize that the girl is not having difficulty climbing because she’s tired, or slightly on the large side. She is having difficulty because she is acrophobic, and she is now two thousand feet above the surrounding countryside.
It doesn’t matter that there is a solid mountain of New Hampshire shist and quartz underfoot. It doesn’t matter that there is a crowd of people around us at all times. She is small, and afraid, and on top of a mountain.
Oh, and we are alone, even in the midst of the Monadnock crowds.
The rest of the school group — made up of energetic young men and women who practically sprinted up ahead of us, and a couple of teachers (one of them my head of school) barely herding them — have been to the summit already and are now on their way back down. All of them have passed us already.
We start back down.
And I had forgotten what it is like to hike down a mountain, with a beginner.
The top of Mt. Mondadnock is bare rock. Hardly any ‘landscaping’ has been done, other than planting the bronze USGS marker in the summit. It’s windy, it’s wet, and it’s cold (above freezing fortunately), and at the moment we’re in cloud layer.
She slips several times. If you’re an experienced hiker, you know to shift your body weight down by planting your feet and dropping your butt. She doesn’t do that, and bangs her ankle twice, and her knee three times, in the first fifty feet from the summit.
Then the clouds break, and she can see all of New Hampshire and Massachusetts spread out like a carpet below us. I think, Amazing. This is why we came to Monadnock at all, of course.
She… well. Acrophobic, remember. Afraid of heights.
The trip down is substantially more difficult than the trip up. It involves, quite literally, pointing out each step and foot placement, and not just a few hand placements and butt placements, on the way down. It involves grabbing a foot, and setting it on a ledge of rock that she can’t see. It involves holding the hand of someone who doesn’t trust gravity across dozens of feet of slanting, slippery rock.
It involves waiting for ten or fifteen people to pass by us, moving up and moving down, while she settles her fears sitting sitting on a lump of stone, eating some raisins or some sunflower seeds, and drinking some of the extra water.
When she falls, and bangs her knee, I have to use Reiki (I’m a level II practitioner) to send energy into her knee. Because the group’s med kit is already at the bottom of the mountain. I think. Every 10 minutes she needs to stop because she’s terrified to continue.
She falls once on the way, and bangs her knee… the same knee as at the top. Now she’s really terrified that she’s going to injure herself awfully. And every time she slips or falls, she cries. The other hikers around us must think I’m a monster, for dragging this girl up to the top, much less bringing her down the White Dot Trail… but it’s where I know the rest of the group is, of course… and I know my cellphone and radio don’t have signal at the bottom.
Oh, the radios. Yes, I have a two way radio, set to channel 1. It’s one of those push-to-talk things, and it’s blue. There are at least ten other groups on the mountain using them… I hear Boy Scout chatter, and some group of parents and kids talking, and it sounds like a Russian group, and maybe a Japanese group.
The folks at the bottom from my school are impatient to go. They keep checking in with me about where I am, how much longer it will be. Only, I can’t tell them. They’re at the bottom of the mountain, so they probably only hear 10% of my responses. And I don’t KNOW WHERE I AM. I have no map of the mountain. I know I’m on the correct trail, but I don’t have any tools for telling me where I am other than my iPhone, which tells me very precisely where I am. Only I can’t use it, because I’ve got a gal with a death grip on my shoulder any time I’m within 5″ of a ledge of rock. The first drop, it must be admitted, may be only 3″, but she’s convinced that she will fall all the way off the mountain if she lets go, unless we’re standing on flat ground.
A man gives me an instant chemical ice pack for her knee.
She begins to realize that there is no way off the mountain except by herself, on her own two feet, or on a stretcher with a genuine injury. At one point, the mountain ranger passes by us on his way up… and she gets excited to see him, except that he’s on his way to deal with an actual emergency further above us. She has to do this herself.
We start down again.
About three rest breaks later (we’re only going six minutes between breaks now, not ten), because she’s frightened by every ledge or bare rock, and we can only go so far, we come to a steep section of bare slanting rock, where we have to go sideways down the mountain. There is a notch at the bottom, where we are going to put our feet over an edge, sit down, and then drop down to the next level. The man ahead of us is butt-sliding down, just as I have said we’re going to do.
He slips, falls, tumbles over himself, skids down the rock, and over the edge into a crevasse. With some difficulty, he picks himself up. No bleeding, no head injury, just a bad fall. I pick up his baseball cap: it says “I’ve had brain surgery. What’s your excuse?” My companion fails to see the humor in it.
Two more steep sections down, each of them “the last steep section.” We reach the ranger’s station. He asks us how we’re doing. My companion says, “we’re doing fine.” It’s the first words she’s said that suggest she’s not scared out of her wits since we reached treeline on the way up — four hours ago.
We meet the head of school. He’s come up to find us.
Another sort of man might have started yelling, or getting angry. She’s put our group four and a half hours behind schedule, turning this from a delightful outing into a 12-hour ordeal. Instead, he praises her accomplishment, her bravery. I find that I like him a lot.
She’s still holding my hand down through three, maybe four, “this is the last steep part” steep parts. My boss ranges on ahead a few times, stops, comes back. He holds her hand occasionally, helps her down over some rocks, but she definitely is still counting on me.
Then we reach the bottom. Our third chaperone has hot dogs ready for us. We all eat three.
And then I drive the bus home. I’m so stiff and sore when we get to campus, it’s maddeningly difficult to get from the parking lot to my house. The head goes home to his family. My other colleague talks to me about his plans on how to arrange stipends for bus drivers. I go to my evening duty, which is supervising the kids at the evening movie in the assembly hall.
And then I go home to ‘walk’ the dog, who has been cooped up since 7:00 am. It’s a little after 8:30 when I walk in my front door, after 9:00 when I bring the dog home. I’m dirty, sweaty and tired. I’ve had two handfuls of raisins and suflower seeds each, a couple of doughnuts, and three hot dogs to eat today. I feel slimy with the residue of someone else’s fears.
I don’t do this kind of thing often, but I light candles and incense, and wash the girl’s terror off myself with firelight and sweet-smelling smoke. Then I shower until the water feels cold.
I taught an acrophobe how to climb a mountain today, and how to come down again. One step at a time. In some ways it’s a wonder that either of us is still alive. In other ways, it’s how we always teach — one step at a time up the mountain, and one step at a time down.
Sometimes the students take the lessons to heart quickly, and sometimes they absorb them slowly. Sometimes they run on ahead and leave us behind so rapidly that we’re still catching our breath. And sometimes? Sometimes you’ve got to be the crutch, all the way up.
And all the way down.