It was not a party for single, witty, intelligent male models roughly my age. Instead, when I arrived at the gym Saturday night, I learned that the party was for Tomás, an eight-year-old boy. This meant that the bulk of the party-goers were Tomás’ peers, seven and eight-year-old boys. My first task was to get the early arrivals suited up in harnesses. I was a little tentative about how best to harness the children. I tried to remember if, at seven or eight, I would have wanted a stranger to come over and manhandle me. Would I have found it demeaning? Would I have been capable of doing it on my own? Von, one of the people who works behind the desk, suggested I take them over to the stairs where they could sit. From this I gathered that the kids were not expected to put on their own harnesses. I would be the one sliding the harness over their feet and cinching it around their tiny waists. I selected my first victim, a cute little girl with long, blonde curls. Her style of dress reminded me of how I would have dressed at that age–cargo shorts and a boy’s t-shirt. I guided her over to the stairs. I felt a little awkward tightening straps in silence. Recognizing that I was the adult and would have to begin the conversation, I asked her what her name was. She said, “Milo.”
Thus I learned my first lesson of the evening: it is easy to mistake eight-year-old boys with long hair for girls. As I moved around, pulling kids aside to put on harnesses, I developed a script for my interactions. I would ask the kids or their parents if the kid was climbing at the party. I would then ask what the kid’s name was. While putting on the harness, I’d ask if the kid had climbed before, and regardless of the answer, I’d ask if they were excited. As I made my rounds, I was introduced to a wide range of eight-year-old temperaments. There were the ones who knew everything. They’d climbed before and were really good at it and could put on their own harnesses. There were the ones who were scared. One boy was so tearful, his mom had to sign an observer waiver so she could stay with her son during the party. The worst, though, were the ones who wouldn’t talk. I went up to this one boy and asked if he was climbing. His eyes got really big, and he took a step back. He wouldn’t answer me, which I found very distressing. I don’t think of myself as a frightening person (though one of my childhood nicknames was, in fact, Scary Ceri). I was the only female belayer for the party, which I (mistakenly) thought would give me automatic points with kids. I had to remind myself that this kid was eight, at most, and it likely wasn’t personal. If an adult were giving me the silent treatment, that would be an indication that he hated me or that there was something very wrong with him. This behavior in an eight-year-old, however, probably just meant that he was shy.
Once the kids were all suited up, they were released into the gym. One person supervised the auto-belay area (an auto-belay is like giant automatic dog leashes which takes in slack as a person moves up the wall, and then slowly lowers the person to the ground as soon as they let go) while the rest of us belayed kids on the slab walls. The kids would run up to us, and we would tie them in using a figure eight knot. I got a lot of questions about the safety systems in place.
Kid 1: “Why don’t you have those things (indicating the auto-belays) everywhere in the gym?”
Me: “Because then I wouldn’t have a job.”
Kid 2: “Which is stronger? This knot or (again indicating the auto-belay)?”
Me: “That’s a good question. I don’t know. They’re both really strong.”
Kid 3: “What happens if the knot comes untied?”
Me: “The knot doesn’t come untied.”
One lovely little girl who I’m pretty sure was the older sister of the party boy, Tomás, introduced herself in this manner:
Me: “What’s your name?”
Her: “Lucia. Don’t call me Lucia (pronouncing it with a ch sound) because I’m not Italian!
It wouldn’t have occurred to me to call her Lucia (ch) if she hadn’t brought it up. But, as a result of her comment, I spent the rest of the evening mentally correcting myself before saying her name. Another little boy wanted to know when the gym had been built. I told him I wasn’t sure, but the gym had been around when I was 9, which made it at least thirteen years old. That made me feel old. These kids weren’t even 9. They’d all been born in 2009 or 2010! The kids didn’t seem particularly interested in reaching the top of the wall. Most would climb about half way up and then ask to be lowered. The hardest part of the job, in my opinion, is trying to instruct an eight-year-old boy how to be lowered safely. Many were simply incapable of internalizing the idea that you needed to stop holding onto the wall with your hands.
Time passed pretty quickly, and before I knew it, we were already an hour into the party which meant it was time for food. My favorite kid at the party, a very inquisitive boy with dark curly hair and fingerless gloves, wanted to know what they were serving. I told him I thought it was pizza. “Why is it always pizza?” he wanted to know. I thought this was an excellent question. “I think because it’s easy to divide and cheap,” I told him before sending him off to wash his hands.
The 20 minutes during which they ate pizza were the scariest moments of the evening. I was left alone with my fellow staff members, which meant that I had to be on my best human behavior. I was introduced to Guy, a tall lanky dude with a man bun, who works as a masseuse and fitness instructor at the gym when not belaying children at birthday parties. He told me birthday parties are the best events to belay for because of the tips. From him I also learned that, contrary to popular belief, cake cutting is a specialty skill that involves extensive training and discipline.
During the second climbing session, I managed the auto-belay area, which translated to running between four belay stations, trying to clip in/unclip the kids before they attempted to do so on their own. I had one close call where I got to Milo just as he was about to let go of the tether, which would have stranded the auto-belay at the top of the wall. Once again, I marveled at the complete lack of interest the kids seemed to have in reaching the top of the wall. What were they getting out of the experience, other than a forearm pump? There’s probably an epiphany somewhere in that observation, waiting to be had, about my personal climbing philosophy, but so far I haven’t taken the time to figure out what it is.
While Guy doled out cake (in this case, cherry pie from a fancy west LA bakery), I watched this little girl with blond ringlets (I’m absolutely certain she was a girl) repeatedly fall on one section of a traverse. Her father was standing next to me, eating a slice of cherry pie, and started talking to me about his daughter. She’s five years old and just started doing gymnastics as part of a competitive team. Before that, she was self taught. I had trouble imagining what this would look like, but from the way he repeated it a second time, I could tell it was impressive. At first, I thought we were having the type of conversation that causes me anxiety, the type where the other person is expected to contribute to the exchange of words in some way, so I started trying to prepare an anecdote about my sister and her career as a gymnast. As I tried to come up with one that didn’t end in a trip to the hospital, the man informed me that his daughter has very good upper body strength. I observed the way she was pulling herself up the wall and nodded. The man went on to tell me that he has crazy good upper body strength. He’s always been some one who could crank out the pull ups and push ups, but he has weak legs. He doesn’t think his daughter has weak legs, but his son does. His son is a very advanced tennis player for his age but struggles to change direction quickly. This is how his father has diagnosed him with weak legs. It was right around the time when the father started demonstrating effective tennis technique that I realized no response was required or expected of me in this conversation. My role was as an audience member. I smiled and nodded and made noises that suggested interest until, mercifully, it was time to help Guy clean up.
As I drove home, I wondered if something about being a parent gave ordinary people the urge to share detailed accounts of their children’s exploits with strangers, or if this was the kind of trait that manifested itself in certain people regardless of whether or not they had any progeny.