MAU freshman Dominique Burnell, faces her fears and takes part in a ropes course provided by the physical education department. (Holly
MAU freshman Dominique Burnell, faces her fears and takes part in a ropes course provided by the physical education department. (Holly Pelczynski/Bennington Banner/photos.benningtonbanner.com)

BENNINGTON -- Mount Anthony Union High School physical education students took to the air this week, taking advantage of a rope course designed to test their individual limits while encouraging teamwork and trust.

"Take a chance, have fun, this is your chance to be safe!" phys. ed teacher Thomas Otero told his class before they started.

The rope course is the final part of a six-week unit, lead by teachers Otero and Scott Legacy. Taught every year since 1991, when the school received a grant to construct the course, the "Adventure Unit," begins with two weeks of ice-breaking and trust-building activities, followed by "belay school," where students learn all the proper safety techniques for rope climbing. In the final two weeks, students are able to hit the course.

"We teach them, you're going to learn how to be a leader. You are going to learn how to give and follow instructions," said Otero, who first got into rope climbing during his time at Norwich University in the ‘70s. "The lessons they learn here apply to life in general. America doesn't hire average anymore, you've got to go above average. You have to go one staple higher, push yourself to go just a little bit further."

One student, Dominique Burnell, who had never been off the ground any higher than a step ladder before, found herself climbing a telephone pole outfitted with large staples for handholds and footholds, to get to a rope bridge roughly two stories in the air. "I was shaking so bad, I was crying," said Burnell, who nevertheless, with encouragement from her classmates, climbed all the way to the top.

Otero and Legacy both received training at High Five Adventure Learning in Brattleboro, and hope someday to take their students on a field trip there. All of their equipment is checked and certified every year, said Otero, and the school replaces the safety ropes more often than the every five years that the manufacturer recommends.

"Anybody can do this," said Otero, "I'm a big guy, and I do this all the time!"

Otero, who has been teaching phys. ed. at MAUHS for 28 years, said that this unit is always one the most popular, and, in his mind at least, one of the most beneficial for the students. "See," said Otero, pointing to a girl climbing a telephone pole while blindfolded, being directed by her belay team on the ground, "They didn't have that trust at the beginning."

At another station, where students climb to the top of a pole, balance there, then jump out and attempt to grab a trapeze, one student, Daryl Kenyon had climbed to the top before finding herself unable to jump. Despite words of encouragement from her belay team, she just couldn't bring herself to take the leap of faith. On the ground, Otero noted that this was her first time at that element, and that many students spent upwards of 20 minutes at the top, building up the nerve to jump. Some, he said, even took 45 minutes to steel themselves.

After about 30 minutes had past, Otero took action. "It's now 1:59!" he shouted to all the students, despite the time actually being no later than 1:45 p.m., "Everyone needs to help clean up, or you're all going to miss your buses!" All the students moved to help, except for Kenyon and her belay team. Now faced with the decision of making the jump or making her friends miss the bus, Kenyon considered giving up, but realized that climbing down was just as difficult as jumping.

She closed her eyes for a moment and then said, "Okay. I'm doing it." Kenyon jumped, and while she didn't catch the trapeze, her belay team was ready to lower her gently to the ground. As she made it to the ground, with the help of Legacy, she asked what time it was, feeling guilty that she had made her friends stay so late. When she learned that it was barely after 1:50, Kenyon, somewhat justifiably, was upset with her teacher's deception. "It was terrifying up there," she said, but even so, Kenyon said intends on trying again Thursday.

"We don't teach PE like when your parents had gym class," said Otero, "We don't even call it gym. We pat ourselves on the back a little bit, but we work hard at it. We've got a great staff here."

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB