Learning to Teach on Devil’s Courthouse

(I started my career as an English teacher at Providence Day School in the fall of 1988.  The previous summer I worked at Camp Pinnacle in Hendersonville, NC.  My experiences as a rock-climbing instructor had a profound impact on how I view teaching.  Devil’s Courthouse, so named by the Cherokee who inhabited this region of North Carolina, is an impressive spot, particularly when you are dangling from its face.)


I was at 5700 feet, 2000 feet above the cove floor, 200 feet above the base of the cliff face, about sixty feet above my climber.  I was tied into a bow-line-on-a-bite, a remarkable variation of the standard bow-line that distributes equal stress between two separate safety holds.  In this case the safety holds were chalks wedged into cracks in the rock.  I leaned out as far as I could, so I could see my climber, who was stumped by her next move and getting tired and grumpy about the entire enterprise.  She looked up: “nowhere to go.”

The southeast view from this particular spot on Devil’s Courthouse was particularly outstanding and encompassed landmarks such as Pilot Mountain and Cedar Rock, but my climber, usually a very aesthetically minded thirteen-year-old girl, didn’t really care about the view right now.  She was looking at the sharp, wind-worn rock directly in front of her—less than a foot in front of her.  I could only see her head and her hands and forearms when they would flash above her from time to time seeking a hold to use.  “Want some advice?” I asked.  She tilted her face up toward me and stuck her tongue out.

I could feel the familiar warmth on my back as the sun reappeared from behind a cloud.  I thought about how tired I was.  I thought about the forty-five minute drive back to camp.  I wondered if we had enough gas to make it back to camp—the gas gauge had broken long ago.  I wondered if it was going to thunder because the last cloud was a bit heavier than the last, and it was three ‘o’clock, and it was June. I wondered if I was going to get to go paddling…and suddenly the slight tension on the rope, just enough to know someone was there, disappeared.  (To the uninitiated this might seem like bad news!)  As she made this move up the rock, I leaned further out just in time to see her fall.  It was not a panicked fall—there was no scream because she was an experienced climber who knew that I had her.  That is not to say she wasn’t scared…her voice shook after she grabbed hold once again.  “What do I do now?”

“Are you alright?”

“I scraped my knee on this stupid rock, “ she sounded more angry than hurt.


“Yes, Ross,” she said with fouix calm and professionalism.

“I want you to try a couple of things.”

“I know, I know,” she said, “try again…don’t hug the rock, use my legs more than my arms, blah, bah-lah, bah-lah!”

I laughed at her sarcasm and realized she knew all my best advice.  I wasn’t the best climber in the world—calling me mediocre would be generous.  In fact, her skill and ability eclipsed mine by a great distance.  Earlier on the climb she had moved so gracefully through an overhang that I didn’t even have time to tell how impressive what she had just done was.  In some ways I had little to offer her.

“I wasn’t going to say any of that,” I lied.  “I was going to suggest you take a breather for a minute—no rush.”  She moved her feet up the rock so that she could lean back on the rope and size up the situation.  She dangled her arms.  I took a moment to look over at the other instructor who was stuffing a PBJ into his mouth before his next climber repelled down the face.  I listened to the rest of the group behind us who were practicing their knots (they had to demonstrate an understanding of the essential knots before we would let them climb).

After some needed rest, she traversed to her left, and she soon found a better route.  Because she understood my role, she tried some moves that tested her quickly expanding repertoire.  She even reluctantly took some of my advice by inverting her hand so that her wrist faced away from her body and pressing herself up as she straightened her arm from her chest down toward her waist—this is called a mantle.  She wasn’t completely happy with her climb, but she smiled at me anyway as she hooked herself into the safety line, took herself off of belay, and walked back to the group.

A wicked storm blew up around four.  I sent a C.I.T. with the girls to scamper down the long and steep path that led to the van.  As I coiled the ropes and gathered all the climbing pieces in the midst of the lightning, rain, and hail, I sensed more distinctly than I had before that my career as an educator, which would officially commence in less than two months, had actually already begun.

2 thoughts on “Learning to Teach on Devil’s Courthouse

  1. J Ross Peters October 14, 2017 / 1:13 pm

    Reblogged this on Ross All Over the Map and commented:

    Spotted this in my FB history feed this morning. It remains relevant regarding how I perceive my work in a school, particularly as I approach my life as a leader in a school.

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