Saturday, March 22, 2014

SOLSC 22 of 31 - The Impossible Pull-up

Join me this month as I write a slice of my life each day this March and join many others sharing slices at  My students will also be slicing this month and you can find links to their daily blogs HERE.  

The bar was a cold metallic silver, taunting me, because I knew I could not do a pull-up on it. I don't know how I knew, but I knew. I had played on this bar before. I remember looping a rope over it tying one end around me, and pulling myself to the top. It was part of the end zone for our recess Nerf football games, and everyone had smacked the vertical poles, hard, at least once while reaching for a ball. Maybe I even tried pulling myself up on it when I was much younger and had failed. But now, it taunted me with the impossible.

 As part of the Presidential Fitness Test my PE teacher was making us all do in 5th grade, we had to do a sprint, standing broad jump, pushups, sit-ups, probably some sort of distance run, and pull-ups. I wasn't the fastest kid in my class, that was Heather (who could also do seven back handsprings in a row!), but I was pretty fast. I was near the top in most categories, excelling in sit-ups. Eventually, I could do fifty-seven in sixty seconds. I practiced all month, making my parents or my brother hold my feet while I torqued my elbows to my knees and then slammed my body down to start again. But my brain told me pull-ups were impossible for me. 

This is a chin-up
I had started, like the other boys in my class, practicing chin-ups, with my fingernails facing my body on the bar. I could barely get one the first day and wanted to give up. Actually, that was more than some, and no one got more than three. My best friend Nathan, couldn't do one. He was safely athletic in the class. He could play well enough with us, and even have good plays, but never ever came close to being at the top at anything. I liked Nathan for lots of reasons, but one was that while he was good competition for me, I almost always beat him in physical activities. He thought he was the next coming of Danny White (the Dallas Cowboys quarterback at the time) and had the ten-year-old ego and confidence to try and back it up. Beating him was always satisfying, even though our friendship was deeper then just recess activities.

Then Laura, our PE teacher, realized that pull-ups were with the hands facing away from the body. We all tried it and found it was much harder and I realized that it was impossible.  Each day when we had PE, and we practiced for the test we were to take the next month, I would not try. I either avoided, faked an injury, or just said I couldn't. Nathan tried every day. He even practiced at recess, some days instead of playing football! 

The week of the testing came. I sprinted and jumped with glee. I did sit-ups and push-ups with confidence. Then it came to the pull-ups. I actually tried...sort of. I knew I couldn't and after a few moments of what looked like effort, I dropped to the ground without even getting one. I was ashamed, frustrated, and near tears.  Other kids usually got three or more, including one who managed ten! We were in awe. It was Nathan's turn. I helped to boost him up and he started. I knew he would do well because he had been practicing. I'd even seen him do six last week. He hit seven, eight, and after some serious struggle, NINE! My own frustration and jealousy didn't allow me to really congratulate him like he deserved. I hope I wasn't petty.

We got a graph of showing our percentile on the y-axis and the different skills on the x-axis. The dots my lines were connected to were mostly between the 50th and the 98th (for sit-ups) percentiles. But there was a dramatic, dip in the middle, down to "0" on the pull-ups section.

Why didn't I practice like I did for sit-ups? Was it just hard and I didn't believe I could do it? Did I only want to try the things that were easy? Now I consider it a missed opportunity. I still don't like pull-ups and while I have proven that I can do them, I have never worked at them and am pretty sure I've never done nine-in-a-row, like Nathan did, almost thirty years ago.

I think about that "zero" in pull-ups often and it's one of those things that just seems to pop in my head when I try and fail quickly at something. I also watch my students have similar issues with failure, knowing that they can't do something, or don't like it before they have even really tried it or practiced it. I try to use all the strategies I can think of to help them get past the mental hurdles that these issues really are. I am sometimes successful, and sometimes not. But I hope they at least try enough that they don't feel ashamed years later about their failures, like I do about my pull-ups.

photo credit: <a href="">stevendepolo</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>


  1. Great allegory! I like how you are able to convey the thoughts and fears of a child. This is about the "grit" that everyone is talking about lately. Do you share this story with you students?

  2. Yep, we all have those memories, part of wanting to succeed "all" the time, & maybe the not trying was because you knew you might not be good, so might as well fail miserable. Why else do people just say things like, "I never was good at math, or I couldn't make the team, so didn't even try out." Great connections and questions, Max.

  3. This is such an important lesson. You're really good with these types of questions to think about.