As I stood on the little platform so very high up in the air, the ropes-course woman cleared her throat, twice. "You can step off the side," she said. "Or you can jump."
"OK," I said, clutching the telephone pole, leaning my head against it. I kept wanting to engage her in conversation, to maybe have a cup of tea way up there in the freezing-cold wind, and talk, for example, about how stepping into air so far above the ground just doesn't feel right to the brain. We could talk about cognitive abilities, brain chemicals, survival mechanisms. We could talk about the meaning of life and the best way to live it.
"Just leap," I am always telling my students. "No throat clearing. No explaining yourself. Just tell a dang story, and tell it well, and tell it true. Don't tell me the story you think I want to hear. Tell the story you want to tell. Just jump." I realized I could have a talk with this woman about that topic, too, about how writing is an act of bravery.
"Um—" I started.
"You can step off the side of the platform," she said again. "Or you can jump."
When you are standing way up on a platform in northern Colorado, you can see a long ways. I could see Wyoming in one direction; I could see the Rocky Mountains in another direction; I could see that flat, hard ground way below me. I could see the dozen graduate students down there, too, their small faces staring up, making hand motions that meant I was supposed to leap. I'm fairly certain they were wondering what was wrong with their teacher, the one who had been advocating bravery of the heart for weeks and weeks now.
As I stood on the platform, I realized that the comment my student made was really bothering me. Before I died, I wanted to apologize to her and anyone who felt like her. I didn't want to cause this amount of anxiety to anyone. "Forget the essays!" I wanted to shout. "Forget telling some of the most real, true, raw, and difficult things about yourselves!"
But then I realized I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it because, somewhere deep inside, I hoped that, in the end, maybe even the most reluctant students might be grateful for the chance to write something beautiful, true, personal—and to write it well.
And so I jumped. I am quite certain that my heart did not beat for a moment; the silence was astonishing. Then the ground swooped closer, the ropes caught me as they were designed to do, I careened forward as if on a giant swing, and I laughed. Oh this is fun! I thought as I went flying, as I heard the students cheer, as I heard myself scream in delight.
Right afterward, we went to the classroom. I got up to talk a little about the beauty of the personal essay. As usual, I saw some biting of lips, some skeptically raised eyebrows. One person had her head on her desk, encased in her folded arms, as if she were weeping. No kidding, I thought to myself. I hear what you're saying now. And then, perhaps with a bit more sympathy, I more or less said: jump. m
Laura Pritchett is a contributing editor for 5280. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.