LIKE many adults, I have mixed feelings about my high school years. But when I think about the benefits, I find that they all seem to emanate from one unexpected discovery. Early in my junior year of high school, in a gymnastics class which I'd had no intention of taking, I learned how to do a front pullover. Any gymnast will tell you that a front pullover ranks at the bottom of the scale of complex maneuvers. Yet it's still no cinch. The idea is to get from the ground to the top of the high bar in one smooth motion. Leaping for the high bar, you kick your legs up with all your strength. At the same time you pull with your arms, relying on the momentum of your legs to carry you around and over. If you do it right, you wind up balancing on top of the bar, ready for whatever more complex maneuver you care to try. Timing and balance, rather than raw strength, are the essential ingredients.
The art of the front pullover was not high on my list of priorities when I was a high school junior. College loomed, and I felt a focused yet peculiarly aimless pressure to succeed. The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, or PSAT, was only a month or so away, and some of my schoolmates were already buzzing with rumors of the scores we'd need to make the National Merit Scholar semifinals. College recruiters were beginning to show up, reminding us of how well we'd have to do in math or science or literature.
The focus of our academic work was also shifting. In the first two years we had often followed our interests: We had tried unlikely experiments, read books that surprised our teachers, composed mock-epics in the style of Beowulf. Now the stakes had suddenly been raised. We were supposed to get into college, and our interests ran a poor second to gleaming transcripts and test scores.
Into this self-absorbed and pressurized world came the front pullover. I flatly refused to believe that anyone - especially me - could actually throw himself over the top of a seven-foot-high bar without getting into a lot of trouble. ``You're not supposed to throw yourself over the bar,'' said the coach. ``This is not a wild sport. We're talking finesse here. Look....'' he lept up to the bar, flipping his legs up to make a ``U.'' ``Think of the stages. The Leap. The Kick Up. The Pull. Leap. Kick Up. Pull. Say those to yourself till they sound like one word. Then do it that way.''
So I practiced. I leaped, kicking my legs up to make a ``U.'' I hung there, a caterpillar-without-portfolio, until I dropped back down to the floor. I added the Pull. My legs suddenly went a little farther. I began to concentrate. The PSAT, college recruiters, and my well-tracked future oddly began to seem a little tame in comparison to this one challenge. I was startled to catch myself thinking about front pullovers at lunch, for example, instead of the next in-class English essay or math test. What would it be like, I wondered, not simply to think about something beautiful, but to do it?
I wasn't even sure I had any power to do something beautiful. Still, one morning, after much practicing, I stared fiercely at the bar, walked onto the mat, leaped in a single motion from my walking stride, grabbed the bar and swung up, pulling as I kicked my legs high. For the first time I knew the freedom of flight as my legs carried me over the top, and I came to rest almost exactly where I'd intended on top of the bar.
The rest of the gymnasium seemed a long way down. I could have been gliding overhead in some happy fantasy of power, but it wasn't a fantasy: I was hovering, at rest on a thin steel bar, in balance, in control. This was where I wanted to be.
As I did this again, and again, I found myself back among old words of comfort, the words of childhood: ``See? You can do it! Attaboy! Great! Beautiful!'' Who used to say these words? Parents said them, and aunts and uncles and every now and then a teacher, the ones who wanted to give me a good start - the ones who wanted me to be happy with myself.
In a funny way, they were words of love and of parting. Those people who watched me learning to read or wobbling on my first bicycle were telling me that I could stand on my own. Setting forth in the world, away from them, I would still have what I needed. I would not have to fear acceptance or rejection, low scores or high scores; I would only have to concern myself with love, and timing, and grace.
By and large I had forgotten this, but it all came back that fall and winter, as I moved from front pullovers to back pullovers to more elaborate and complex maneuvers. As it turned out, I did take the PSAT, and the SAT; I applied to college.
But all that followed, the serious studying and the successes and failures, moved outward like concentric circles from the circles I spun on the high bar, where with each spin and dismount I seemed to grow lighter than air, lighter than the weighty demands that might drag me down. Never large or particularly strong, I still came to believe in the essential freedom of all true athletes, who master a restful balance.