Seldom have jumping rope and running an organization been compared. But Cuong Nguyen, a Fairfax County adult education counselor for five years, had no trouble making the mental leap as he watched his colleagues trip, giggle, huff and puff their way over a jump rope last Thursday.
"It's like dealing with an organization," he said. "You need timing to make things go smoothly."
Nguyen's teammates -- teachers, administrators and secretaries of the adult education program -- were spending the day jumping over ropes, swinging on ropes and climbing over a 15-foot wall, all in the name of teaching teachers how their students feel when facing something new.
As many of the 60 participants would have said, the morning at the Hemlock Overlook Outdoor Education Center, a joint venture of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and George Mason University, wasn't all fun and games.
"Let's do it! We're talking this to death," said an exasperated Liz Link, a program specialist with the adult education program. The group settled on the strategy of having one person play director of the rope jumping. Unfortunately, the director was having a hard time directing.
"One, two, three, JUMP!" yelled adult education counselor Carole Toone.
Tour coordinator Dorothy Stringer fell into business education specialist Pat Hyland's lap.
"One, two, three, JUMP!" yelled Toone.
Stringer and Pimmit Hill Center secretary Sue Beach tripped over the rope.
"One, two, three, JUMP!" yelled Toone several times more.
Eventually, all seven made it over the rope. They were so busy congratulating each other, however, that they missed the next turn of the rope. Armed with experienced instruction from the first seven teammates, the other half of the 14-member team had little trouble achieving three consecutive jumps.
"It's a new way to expose the staff to new learning," explained Ken Plum, director of adult and community education. "Adults come to us apprehensive -- many of them didn't make it through high school because of social problems, family problems, economic problems -- and we need a way to appreciate that. It's not that the staff's unaware of these problems. This is just a reminder."
A vivid reminder, at that. Highlights included a trip over a giant wheel, on which the trick was to avoid landing on one's head, and a rope swing across a murky puddle, which tested teammates' willingness to muddy themselves in the interest of helping the person on the rope reach dry land. "Never have I felt so comforted to know someone was going to catch me," said basic education and financial planning program specialist Jean Lowe, recounting her leap across the mud.
Then there was the grand finale, a climb over a 15-foot wall, achieved with boosts from below and pulls from above. That stunt was so grand that George Mason professor Warren Doyle, who's been leading business and community groups through these courses for the last year, called an end to the proceedings after fewer than 20 made it over.
Sam Willis, 66, a School Board-appointed adviser to the adult education program, managed to be among the first up the wall. "I was in the Marines from '42 to '46," he said, shrugging off congratulations. "We had something like this, only you went over yourself."
"The wall looked high to us," said Plum at lunch, "but to adults who've been illiterate all their life, they see an even greater wall."
The educators applauded Plum's remark, echoing the idea that wall-climbing is a snap, compared with learning to read.
There were few of what Doyle called "wet blankets," and those were quickly persuaded to dry up. As Doyle said, "Teachers [know how to] deal with the fear of failure."
The program, Doyle said, teaches participants "not to think about who's strongest, smartest or most verbal," he said, "but who's standing behind. Human welfare is indivisible. As long as someone is suffering, no one is secure."
While not everyone was secure during every exercise, no one suffered. Each of the teams had students to guide them and make sure no one suffered injuries although they did not tell participants how to overcome the obstacles.
"The trick to taking people through this is not to tell them too much," said Del Kolberg, a George Mason graduate student.
"I think everyone realized it was a group effort and we were all in it together," said one woman, summing up the spirit of the morning.