The Monkey Bars

The summer after my freshman year of college, I worked at my elementary school’s After School Program for the two months between when I got home and when school got out.  I was assigned to the younger grades and my job was basically to help supervise and play with the kids.  It was actually kind of a dream job. I didn’t have to plan anything, I just got to hang out with six year olds, which happen to me one of my favorite kinds of people. Eventually, they started to realize I was good with children, so I even got to read the pre-playground story. It was all kinds of wonderful.

Outside in the playground, I was usually on swing duty. Sure, I could have stood with the other teachers, but I’m much more comfortable socializing with people under the age of eight than I am people I don’t know, so I was usually either walking the perimeter to check on the kids who were just out of sight, or pushing the endless stream of kids on the swing.  Sometimes there would come a time when the kids occupying both swings could pump on their own, so I would wander through the yard and make sure everything was going smoothly.

One day, when this happened, a little girl with long blonde hair and bright blue eyes called out to me as I was walking by.  She asked if I could help her across the monkey bars. She was about six or seven years old, and was small enough that I could easily lift her up to the height of the monkey bars, so I agreed to help. I boosted her up and walked to the other side, with her sort of sitting on my arm, while she grabbed one rung after the other.  She seemed quite pleased with herself, despite the fact that she didn’t really do much, so I was happy to oblige. Of course – monkey see, monkey do – this caused all the other children who couldn’t do the monkey bars on their own to want a turn.  I would do this until my arms couldn’t function anymore or until the whistle was blown to go inside.

How I didn’t get raging biceps that summer, I will never know.

Day after day, this little girl would ask me to help her across the monkey bars.  This would always start the other kids in, but there were never any as consistent as her.  After a few days of this, I told her she should try on her own.  I told her I was going to let go on the first bar, but I would stand right under her if she wanted to get down or felt like she was going to fall.  I lifted her to the first bar and gentle lowered my arm, leaving her hanging there.  Her little face turned pink and scrunched up with fear and strain and finally she shrieked a little and asked to get down.  I lifted her to the ground and she scurried back up to the platform and asked if I could take her across…all the way, like before.

I agreed, but I wasn’t about to give up on this.

The next day I asked her to try again.  I hung her on the first bar, just like the day before, and this time encouraged her to reach to the next bar.  I told her to let go with one hand and swing to the next one, that I would be right here, just like yesterday.  She reached out and wrapped one little hand around the second bar and hung there between the two bars for a moment.  She suddenly yelped that she was falling (which she wasn’t) so I wrapped my arms around her waist and she released her hands with a sigh. As I placed her back on the ground I told her, “You did so great, you reached the next bar. Next time, maybe you’ll get both hands to the second bar!”  She looked at me incredulously for a moment before resuming her position below the first rung.  I rewarded her efforts of the day by taking her all the way across…like before.

The next time we were at the monkey bars, and she dangled between the two bars once more, I encouraged her again – “Great! Now, bring your other hand to the second bar!”  This time, she had a tight enough grip and she swung her second arm to join the first.  She asked to get down but this time instead of looking up at me like I was crazy when I told her what a great job she did, she had a new fire behind her eyes.  I was looking down into a sparkly blue look of determination and she exclaimed, “I wanna try again.”  She rushed back to the beginning and I lifted her onto the first bar. This time, braver, she made it to the second bar with no problem.

Day after day, she was right back at it.  God forbid I had agreed to push some kids on the swings first – the poor thing would impatiently pace around my feet until she could monopolize the rest of my time.  It was bad enough that even WHILE I was helping her on the monkey bars, I was helping other kids across in between. She had a MISSION and I was doing nothing but slowing her down.  After a few more days, she only needed me to lift her onto the first bar and take her down from the last.  She had mastered moving from rung to rung with the skill of a chimpanzee, flying furiously from one end to another.  The laughter when she bravely let herself fall into my arms at the end was the best. She was so proud of herself and she couldn’t get enough of this new skill.

One day, I was doing my usual assembly line style monkey bar routine – taking one kid across, walking back to the beginning, taking the next kid across, and so on – and the little girl was next.  However, by the time I lifted the kid I was helping to the ground, she was already halfway to the end.

“How on earth did you get up there?” I asked. There was no way she reached it from the platform – even jumping, I was pretty sure her arms would be much too short for her to get a firm grip on the first rung.  As I snatched her from the last bar, she smiled a mischievous smile at me and said, “Wanna see?”

She jumped out of my arms and scurried back to the beginning of the monkey bars.  She bypassed the platform that you would normally use to get on the monkey bars and started climbing up the small metal ladder that lead to a second tier of the jungle gym.  But instead of getting on that level, she held onto the the metal gate that lined that platform, walking on the thin ledge that stuck out barely an inch under the barrier.  Sure enough, though, when she reached the end, she was at the perfect height to reach over and grip the first bar with both hands before swinging down and starting her rampage to the other side.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the ingenuity of this – she had gotten tired of waiting for me and found her own way up. Now she just had to make sure I was within shouting distance when she started so that I could come pluck her off the last bar when she needed me.  The monkey bars ended on a low platform that stood alone, attached only to another, even higher set of monkey bars (actually, monkey rings) and there was no way she could safely jump down without risking missing the platform and hurting herself.

She must have done the monkey bars a hundred times every time we were out there. Some of the other kids followed her lead on how to get down, so, depending on which kids were playing, I could sometimes just stand on one end and be their exit strategy – which my poor arms appreciated.

One day, towards the end of my short few weeks there, the little girl ran up to me as I tied a little boy’s shoe.  She shouted, “COME WITH ME, LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!” and grabbed onto my hand, tugging with all her might.  Luckily, her might wasn’t much, or I would have toppled over, she was pulling with such passion and excitement.  She lead me to the place she wanted me to stand and let go of my hand. She rushed to her new pathway to the monkey bars, pausing briefly to make sure I was watching before she continued.

She swung down and ripped across the bars like she was Tarzan being hunted, reaching the other side in no time flat. I took a step towards her, waiting for her to call out for me to help her down.  Then, I froze in my tracks as I watched her skillfully wrap her little legs around the beam of the monkey bars, followed by her arms, and shimmy down to the platform. Safe and sound. And without any help.

I ran to her and wrapped her in my arms – “You did it! You can do the monkey bars all by yourself!”

I had never seen a child smile so brightly.

“Do you want to see it again?!”

Of course I did. I watched her do it again and again, each time with seemingly more ease.  I stood back and watched as this little girl who hadn’t been able to hang on the bar without trembling in fear maneuver up, across and down these bars like she was born in the treetops.

I was feeling something I had never really felt before. At least, not so strongly. It took me a moment to be able to identify the feeling.

I was proud of her.

I had watched her and helped her work towards something long and hard and then get it.

It was an amazing feeling.

But bittersweet. Because at the same time…she didn’t need me anymore.  I had taught her how to fly and she was on her own now.

Her dad came to pick her up that day and she dragged him over with the same enthusiasm she showed me.  As I helped lead the children that were left back inside to wait for their parents, I watched her show him her newly acquired independence.  I smiled to myself as she disappeared from view.

This little girl probably won’t remember me. She won’t remember this summer over any other summer. She won’t remember my name or my face – she probably won’t even remember ever not knowing how to do the monkey bars.

But she’ll always remember how to do them.

And I got to be a part of that.

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~ by Valerie Anne on 04/20/2011.

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