At the lowest platform, Joshtin signaled that he wanted to come down. It was his choice, Johnston affirmed. Control over how high to climb, which route to take, and when to come down is one of the ways Outdoor School staff help students summon the courage to take on the tower. “It’s your choice,” they say.
When the students know they are in control, and that no one will leave them stranded or push them beyond their limit, many students push for the top of the tower. Just 15 minutes earlier, Mia, a little girl with waist-length black hair, had hoisted herself onto the top platform amid cheers from below.
But “It’s your choice” also gives some kids the courage to end their journey on a lower platform. They find their limit, and rather than seeing it as a failure to reach the top, they have the confidence to stop at a different place along the way.
Some of the students, like Joshtin, start out unsure. Others start out confident, cocky even, only to reach the first respite platform with knees too shaky to continue. Even though there is plenty of celebration from their classmates as the belaying staff member lowers them to the ground, some are disappointed, ashamed they could not make it further.
One such girl collapsed into tears as her feet touched the ground. The nerves and the disappointment gushed out of her eyes in big, heaving, sobs as Johnston ran to her side. Her classmates joined in the huddle, ready with encouragement.
“You can try again when you are ready!”
“You made it really far!”
“I’m so proud of you!”
Those moments, Johnston said, are just as potent as the moment a kid reaches the top platform.
“We bring back stories we can connect to throughout the year,” Johnston said. When kids face other challenges or disappointments, she often refers back to “that time on the Alpine tower” or how much more confident they were on a second or third attempt at kayaking, crate stacking, and other activities.
Joshtin would have one of those stories. His return to the ground was more playful: “Como Spiderman!” his friends shouted as he dangled from the rope. There were no tears, but he too would talk with Johnston to quickly process what he learned about bravely trying, choosing a limit, and taking pride in the process.
For a child fleeing violence, learning English, and heading into manhood in a world that offers him few advantages, those few minutes on the tower taught him a lesson in dignity that could stick with him in the years to come.