Do it! Come on! Jump! Let’s see it!
…You know, the rest of us are waiting to go, too!
It seemed like such a long way…. Slightly lower than the branch I was standing on, the branch I was to jump to stuck out from the next tree at an awkward angle. I couldn’t just jump straight, like from monkey bar to monkey bar on the playground at the top of the hill. This wasn’t the straight-and-ordered, cleared-land, building-codes-fulfilled fenced-in playground I knew so well. Now I was in the trees, down the hillside, at the edge of the forest, a small boy feeling smaller by the second. The kids I considered friends all shouted at me that I wasn’t “being man enough,” and that I needed to jump across this distance that was wider than any I had crossed before….
There was no reason I should have done it. It wasn’t a rite-of-passage long established among our circles of fellow schoolchildren. This was just some stupid dare a bully made up so that he could seem braver than those of us who either wouldn’t or couldn’t hash it. Those who did pull it off were in turn one-upped by his next jump, improved with some new little trick he did to show off.
He was a skater, unafraid of falling, no stranger to bruises, scrapes, bleeding, hurting. He was probably invincible, in his own mind, since he had already fought the hard blacktop pavement and won, many times before. These trees had nice earth, moss and grass beneath them.
All I saw were the roots, hard, twisting, knobby and rough, no two inches growing the same way….
Come on, if you’re not gonna jump, then you’re afraid!
I was afraid. I looked down and saw only the height. I looked across at the target, and saw only an impossible distance and a deceptive angle. I looked up and saw no good branches to use to escape. I looked behind me, and saw the rest of my class and some others scattered around the other branches, and on the ground, looking up at me scornfully, judging my hesitation as weakness.
He’s not gonna do it. He doesn’t have the balls.
I scraped myself in two places as I hurriedly descended to a lower branch and off the tree. I thought, at the time, that it was a negligible injury compared to a broken bone. I knew it must be, like, ten feet or more that I would have fallen!
Everyone jeered at me as I walked away in shame, to try and find someone who hadn’t seen, who didn’t know, or just who didn’t care that I was scared of something that everyone else was doing. To them, it wasn’t dangerous, simply because they were all doing it. I did not understand the concept that a danger became safer when the majority was conquering it. I was the minority. I was a geek, a dork, a coward and a scaredy-cat. I didn’t fit in with the cool kids. I didn’t fit in with the normal kids who just scraped by. I didn’t fit in.
I didn’t jump. I couldn’t bring myself to move past the paralyzing fear.
Months later, it was at least fifty degrees colder outside, and this time, the shadows were lengthening. I was at the same spot by the woods, where the larger trees held the line. My father was up in the cafeteria with the other adults, for a small Oktoberfest function with the Germans and German descendants from the church and school. I had slipped away to play outside, since I was bored of grown-up talk. I had come to look at the tower that had conquered me with fear. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, while I could take my time.
It was no sweat to climb the first tree. I had done that many times. We kids were like squirrels, climbing anything and everything in reach. It hadn’t been until the skater punk had raised the stakes with his risky jumping that anyone thought of trying to be a flying squirrel. Securely sitting on the branch where I had felt so small, I now realized the distance was not that far. In fact, the branch I thought I’d never reach seemed to be the perfect size and shape to catch with two hands while flying through the air. It made me think of the gymnastics I’d seen on TV, with the uneven bars, and the gymnasts defying gravity. I began to believe that if I tried my hardest, I really could make it….
Oblivious to the chill air, to my breath steaming like fog, to my numb hands without gloves or mittens, I leaped out into space, feeling like a superhero….
The branch was right there, waiting for my hands, and they were already grabbing hold, like I had done this a million times. It felt like just another day jumping through trees. I was exhilarated as I discovered that I had nailed it on the first try! My hands stung as I let go, rubbed raw by cold and rough tree bark, and I was surprised that they had not failed me. I stuck the landing on my dismount from a branch that was, to my child’s eye, at least ten feet from the soil. I felt like a legend.
When I returned to the cafeteria, at the top of the hill, flushed from autumn’s brisk kiss and the thrill of achievement, my father lit into me for disappearing without telling him where I was going. He roughly grabbed my arm as he berated me, and dragged me into the hallway for questioning. I couldn’t understand why I was in trouble, when I had just conquered a debilitating fear. He took this for churlishness, and grounded me for the rest of the evening. Cool! I thought. I did what that bully can do, and I am getting in trouble like he does, too! I felt like, in a small way, I fit in a little more.
Years later, visiting the school as a young twenty-something, I found the entire campus completely changed. Where there had just been an elementary school, now there was an entire middle school, as well, with plans for a future high school. The hillside covered in trees was now a large, modern and well-equipped gymnasium. My childhood accomplishments could no longer be proven. I looked around at the children who seemed smaller than grade-school kids should, and I was astounded by how much each and every little detail was significant to them. I wondered if the branches I had fretted over so much fifteen years ago had really been only four feet off the ground. The school buildings I remembered, the old ones that still remained, did indeed look like toys compared to the university buildings I frequented now. I hadn’t realized until that moment how true it is, what they say:
Everything seems bigger when you’re little. One day, you’ll grow up, and this will all seem very small.
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