On Starting the Year Exhausted
When I sat down last week to teach my first class of the year, I will admit I was feeling less than enthusiastic. As you may have heard elsewhere, this was a big summer for the CenterForLit crew. I spent long days bent over my laptop in a hidey hole, fiddling with fonts and website design for our new CenterForLit Schools project. By the time I exited my dark den, eyes blinking in the harsh light, August had rolled to a close and it was time to take up the teacher’s mantle again. On the one hand I was grateful to have participated in such fulfilling work. On the other hand, summer was a blur and it felt like just yesterday I had wrapped up my last class of the spring. Dragging my worn-out, beat-up body and third cup of coffee I arrived – not at a finish line – but a starting gate.
The first title assigned for our Junior High Literature course this year was James Ramsey Ullman’s Banner in the Sky. Megan, my sister-in-law and co-teacher, ever a gift in times of need, was filled with insight and excited to talk about a book she had just finished for the first time in years. I, however, was pretty sure this was my 358th reading of Banner in the Sky and had nothing remarkable to say. Rudi. Coming-of-age. Self-sacrifice. I’d been up this mountain a thousand times.
…You see, that’s supposed to be funny because Banner in the Sky is a fictionalized account of the first summiting of the Matterhorn. In this version, however, the mountain is called the “Citadel,” and the main character is a boy whose father tragically died while attempting to lead an expedition on its dangerous slopes. As a result, Rudi’s mother and uncle have forbidden him from pursuing the village’s most respected trade. In the town of Kurtal it is expected that all likely young mountain boys will apprentice as porters so that one day they can become guides for Alpine tourists. But Rudi is stuck washing dishes at the local hotel. He gazes out the window and imagines the day he will fulfill his father’s dream to conquer the mountain.
A rare opportunity presents itself when Rudi runs away to climb and encounters the famous mountaineer, John Winter, stuck in a crevasse. In an astounding feat of strength, Rudi saves Winter’s life and, duly impressed, Winter lobbies with Rudi’s family to allow the boy to accompany him on the Wunderhorn – one of the less dangerous mountains in the area. The project is to climb to a place where Winter can get a better view of the Citadel. He reveals that he is planning to make the first attempt on the mountain since Rudi’s father died.
Having practiced on the sly, Rudi is an extraordinarily talented climber for his age. He is eager to earn the respect of Captain Winter and his uncle Franz during this first exploratory expedition, hoping against hope that he may then be invited to the big dance. Things go well in the beginning, but on their way down the Wunderhorn Rudi decides to explore what he believes to be a more efficient route than the one his older companions have chosen. While Winter and Franz are otherwise engaged, Rudi tests his theory. He promptly gets stuck, and Franz must risk his life in order to save his nephew. Ullman describes their final descent:
The boy was now tied onto the middle of the rope, with the Englishman ahead of him and his uncle behind. The latter scarcely let him climb at all, but simply lowered him down the mountain, as he would have done with a novice tourist. The guides of Kurtal had a contemptuous phrase for it – “Like a bundle of firewood.”
Rudi is humiliated. After trying to set himself apart as a leader, he instead finds himself treated like dead weight. His mother and uncle shoo him back to the hotel kitchen and forbid him from stepping foot on the mountains again. Still, Old Teo, the hotel chef, feels sorry for the boy. Once a guide himself, Teo was crippled in the same tragic accident that killed Rudi’s father. He takes Rudi under his wing and tells him the story of that fatal climb. Teo reminds Rudi that his father did not die because he could not climb the mountain, but because he had frozen to death. When his employer was injured, Josef Matt stayed behind while Teo went for help. Teo scolds Rudi, “The other day, with that foolishness on the Wunderhorn. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Was it not, perhaps, because you had not yet learned this? Because you were thinking, not of others, but only of yourself?” Unlike his father, Rudi prioritized his personal dreams and reputation over his fellow climbers. If he is to come of age, he must learn from his mistake.
You’re probably expecting that the story ends, as stories should, with triumph – Rudi standing victorious on the summit of the Citadel. And while he does manage to make it onto Winter’s climbing team, events take an unexpected turn in the climax. With the summit in view, just an hour’s climb away, Rudi’s partner falls and is unable to climb his way back onto the path. With a broken arm and leg, he urges Rudi to continue on, telling him to be his father’s son. But, thanks to Teo, the boy has taken his father’s example to heart. He carries his partner back to the mountain shoulder where they have set up camp. It is a grueling process, and by the time they reach the tents, Rudi is spent. Winter and Franz step in to help, but now Rudi can barely carry his own body down the mountain. Ullman writes, “Then he was slipping again, stumbling again. He was not climbing down the mountain, but simply being lowered down – ‘like a bundle of firewood.’”
Rudi’s story doesn’t end in strength, but in weakness. True, his exhaustion is the result of self-sacrifice. He has – in a metaphor my students are fond of making – conquered the mountain of character. And while true, this year I was struck by a new implication of Rudi’s journey. It is, I think, a more powerful one than mere ethical development.
Teo tells Rudi that, in order to be a true guide, he must stop thinking of himself. Self-focus is not only the reason Rudi puts Franz and Winter in danger on the Wunderhorn; it is also the reason he is humiliated by being lowered “like a bundle of firewood.” He feels the injury to his pride when he has to be carried down by others. This is not true, however, at the end of the story. Turning his eyes away from himself, he not only saves his partner’s life, but also ceases to consider his reputation as he is again carried down the mountain.
Ullman states in the conclusion that this is the story “of how Rudi Matt, who was later to become the most famous of all Alpine guides, grew from a boy into a man.” Since graduating college, I have continually been struggling to – as my fellow millennials put it – “adult.” In my mind, growing up means achieving independence, pulling myself up by my boot straps, and succeeding by dint of my own efforts. I have found that task not just difficult, but impossible. The only times I have succeeded have been when family and friends hold up my arms and give me a boost. More often than not, the only way I get off each mountain I encounter is by being carried down like the burdensome bundle of firewood I am. But if Ullman is right, maybe being a grown-up isn’t about being independent after all, but about finding the humility to be dependent.
That Junior High class was fantastic. By the end of the discussion, I was just as enthusiastic as the first time I talked about the story. But it was because I was carried along by Megan and the excitement of my students. I was not sufficient on my own for that day’s task. We triumphed only by mutual support and exchange of ideas. I write this as a reminder to myself, but I hope that you, too, can find the blessed rest that comes from accepting the help of others - accepting you are not sufficient of yourself - this school year. Carrying each other along like bundles of firewood, may we together find the strength to light the fire of education. And may we all find the peace that comes from knowing we are carried along in the hands of the great Climber of our mountains.