Twenty-five feet to the ceiling
of the gym
          junior high school, P.S. 232
and in one corner
two ropes hung
          trailing their ends just above the floor
— rough, hand-burning
red-brown ropes, the test
          of our guts, supposedly —
and the teachers told
          Climb all the way up
or you don’t graduate
          you stay back until
you can do it.
          I wasn’t the only one
who believed them.

But no one taught us.
Not really. Sure, they showed
us once:
          Pull with your
arms like this and
          wrap the rope
around your leg, get a grip
between your sneakers.
          I tried to practice whenever
I could get up the courage
when no one
          but my friend Bob was looking
— never
          made it more than ten feet
before my 12-year-old skinny-boy
          and I hung there, legs thrashing,
the rope
          swinging out of control
like some part of my life
I couldn’t begin to fathom,
          making me dizzy.

But on the appointed day
          in June (eight had
gone before me and only
one had failed)
          adrenalin pounding, fear
          doing its powerful work
I heard my name called and
          like a hunted animal
                    smelling the dogs coming
I leaped forward and before
I could register
          what was happening
the person named Lou Lipsitz
          went up that rope
                    arms alone pulling him
          the entire way, which
I had thought
          impossible, far beyond my strength.
And then
          that strange moment at the top,
looking down twenty-five feet,
elated and dazed, my altered state
          just beginning to recede,
the rope swaying a little
                    between my legs,
twenty-five feet to fall, or slide,
          or descend in triumph;
such a long way down
          and I was even more afraid
          — all those years in front of me
about to unfold, and me
not knowing any better how
          to return to earth
than I’d
known how to ascend

the teacher yelling: You
can’t stay up there
          all day, for chrissake
my arms starting to seriously
          the fear of falling starting
to take hold, but
          also a wish to leap into
the air and see what
happened — it was only
          life after all
and I could see below me
          the rushing water
the rocks
          and the girl among
the burning flowers.