Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Climbing to the top

on May 5, 2014

At the Ecole Lamazou, the general PE class, or Gymnastique, included, again, rope climbing.

I really cannot fathom why France puts such emphasis on rope climbing. Since I already grumbled about this in previous posts, I shall refrain from doing so here. So in all the intervening years, while I gallivanted around the world, little French girls had been honing their skills in rope climbing. And therefore, by the time I was in 5eme (Grade 7), they were all regular little monkeys, scooting up and down a smooth rope to the ceiling of the gymnasium in a matter of seconds. No more knotted ropes by then, only smooth ones. And the PE teacher would time each climber, click! the moment her feet left the floor and stop it, click! the instant she touched the ceiling with her hand. The times varied between 9 to 11 seconds or so. The distance was around one and half floor’s height, so I would say, maybe 15-20 feet.

girl climbing rope

 Climbing a smooth rope

All the girls, including Marie-Therese the Vietnamese, would take turns walking up to the hanging rope, grab the rope with both hands, raise one foot, and hop! off they would go. Fist over fist, raise feet, fist over fist, raise feet, etc. all the way up, touch the ceiling (click!) then fist under fist, lower feet, fist under fist, lower feet, until they hopped off back to the floor. Very neat, very fast, clean cut. Then Marianne the English girl, Saadia or I would take our turn, grab the rope, raise one foot, and hop! kick wildly in the air trying to find the rope with the other foot, swinging round and round like a Tarzan wannabe, our buttocks seemingly heavier than a ton, until our arms got tired, then we would fall back to earth, totally humiliated. Marianne had the worst time of the three of us, because she was heavier, and also because her white skin showed the pink and red of embarrassment so much more clearly. Clearly, they don’t make students climb ropes in England either. So every week, when it was time to climb rope, we’d sit criss-cross apple sauce on the floor, in line, waiting for shame time, go through the embarrassing experience, then go back and sit down again. Week after week.

The teacher never made a single effort at coaching us. She actually did not bother to even time us. She would just wait till we finished hanging and swinging and then go on with the clocking of the remaining students. And occasionally mutter about foreign girls being hopeless.

This so bothered me that one day I decided to study the phenomenon. There must be a reason why all the French girls could climb and we could not. I tried to visualize the monkey climbers and contrast that image with that of the heavily sagging and hanging Marianne or Saadia. Suddenly, it struck me! When the French girls stood at the rope, ready to go, their hands were in front of their chest while we reached up as far as we could to grab the rope high. So in order to pull ourselves up, we had to use pure arm power to lift our entire body up.  Since we had no muscles to speak of in our upper limbs, this feat was totally impossible. The French girls on the other hand, used leg power to go from a squatting to a standing position, using the hands only to steady themselves.  Now the whole thing started to make sense. That’s why they were going: fist over fist, fist over fist. They would raise their crossed feet with the rope tightly held between the feet only a little at a time, straighten the knees to raise the body up, fist over fist, then do it all over. Aha!

Holding the rope too high up means having to use only arm power to lift the entire body upward.

Holding the rope too high up means having to use only arm power to lift the entire body upward.

So, armed with this knowledge, the next week, I awaited my turn eagerly, hoping my theory would work out. My turn came.

I walked up to the rope, and this time, placed my hands only in front of my forehead instead of as high as I could reach above my head. I looked at the teacher. She just looked at me in a bored way, knowing this was all a show until I fell back down. So I hopped and grabbed the rope between my feet the way I had been taught in first grade. Wow! What a great feeling! My arms were not stretched out and I did not feel heavy! OK, what next? Ah, yes: fist over fist. Slowly, instead of the tak-tak speed of the other girls, I placed my left hand above my right, then my right above my left. Ouf! Still there, still in the air! All right, slightly loosen the grip on the rope between my feet, slide up a bit, grab and step on the rope again. Good. Now my fists are back in front of my chest. At this point, I heard “click!”, the teacher had pressed her stopwatch. I glanced down at her. She had a wide-eyed look that held a mixture of puzzlement and awe. That felt good. I can do this. OK, so left fist, grab, right fist, grab, feet slide up. Then it happened, the ceiling was right on top of my head. I looked down. Big mistake. I nearly fell off my hands went all sweaty. OK, don’t look down. Don’t look down. What now? Oh, yes, I have to touch the ceiling. I tried to take my right hand away from the rope. It took two tries for my hand to finally be able to leave the rope, but it was trembling. Slowly, slowly, I lifted it, all sweaty and trembling, and “tap!” I touched it. I touched the ceiling! Quickly, I grabbed the rope again. Fist under fist, lower feet. Fist under fist, lower feet. Then I thought, oh, just slide down! And I tried. Big mistake. No one had told me about rope burn. My palms were on fire by the time I touched the floor again. Click!  “Forty-two seconds!” said the teacher. But she still had that awed look on her face. I walked back to my place in line. And noticed that all the girls had a similar awed look on their faces too!


And I don’t want to pretend it wasn’t a big deal. I felt so great! The feeling was incredible!

Today, I look back and realize that it was the victory of mind over body. There is a system to everything. Learn the system and you win. I was still weak in body and not particularly good at PE, but I had learned to climb a rope despite all.

The next week, the PE teacher went on maternity leave to deliver her baby. So it looked like God decided that since I had mastered this challenge, it was time to move on to the next one.


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