Today in a windowless room in a small city in Tennessee there is a board meeting and the fate of the world — ok, my world — hangs in the balance. Cue soaring violins and thundering theme music. Dun dun dunnnnnn!
Ok, so maybe fate of my world is a bit dramatic, but today does mark a distinct fork in the road with regards to my career and my Future. You see, I have this dream of doing something that doesn’t involve ships or Navy Nuclear power, and I’ve submitted my package to the board — the board that’s meeting today– for consideration to be a Naval diplomat instead.
We’ve come full circle. This time last year, I was in a similar situation, flat-out in pursuit of a long-standing dream. And here I am again with my toes curled on the edge of the diving board ready to make that heart bursting leap once more. Do you know that feeling? Have you ever jumped from a 10 meter diving board before?
I have. Some 13 years ago in fact. The 10 M jump is a requirement to graduate from the Naval Academy and every Youngstar (sophomore for you non-USNA types) finds herself on that board at one time or another. 33 feet in the air with your head closer to the ceiling than your feet are to the ground. The pool below perfect in its aqua blueness emitting a constant waft of chlorine, but still entirely too far away. Walking the plank was a completely apt and present thought as your heart tried to steamroll its way out of your throat and you did your best to not focus on the interested gaze (and cameras) of the never-ending stream of tourists peering at you from the other side of the glass.
The coaches build you up for the big leap throughout the semester, growing your confidence by having you leap off of the 3, 5, and 7 M boards first. I don’t remember this successive leaping though. I only recall the long wait in the dark stairs of the tower and the reverberating screams that bounced off of it as some 60 or so classmates leapt one-by-one ahead of me.
The ones most afraid of jumping self-selected to the back of the line which only heightened the anxiety as we slowly climbed the shadows of the tower; 10 ft then 20 ft, then thirty ft, our waiting punctuated by the coaches yelling “NEXT” like a metronome and the corresponding splash of successful leapers. With every step closer to the top, the entirety of the back line trembled. We fed off of each other’s fear and there was much hysterical sobbing and praying out loud like a scene from Young Goodman Brown. My entire body shook like I’d been doing sets of minute-long planks. We emerged into the light of the pool, squinting from our time in the tower and huddled at the back of the diving board afraid to walk out any further. The coaches stood at the very bottom, arms folded across their yellow polos, cajoling, encouraging, and threatening us to come down.
The memory gets fuzzy at this point; everything filtered in a haze of toasted almond light. Some of the girls went shrieking back into the tower, one stood on the edge, and the remainder fretted at the back of the board. I have no idea how long we stood up there. Time had stopped and I was only aware of the certainty that I was about to either faint or die. I don’t know how or why, but I came to the realization that whether I fainted or died, I’d better get on with it or I’d be stuck on that board all day.
With a gulping intake of air, I took a step forward, still shaking, but feeling incrementally relieved by the decision. Another girl stepped forward with me and Meg Brooks*, the girl who’d been poised at the edge of the board, jumped. I peeked over the edge, feet firmly flat and away from the precipice, as she entered the water with a loud splash. I was still there to witness as her water-darkened blonde head breached the surface and she began to scream: MY BACK! MY BACK! OH MY GOD — MY BACK!
The previously single-occupied diving well was quickly populated with people as coaches, students and even bystanders jumped in to save Meg Brooks. Again, time had become irrelevant and we stood frozen, wide-eyed and trembling at the edge of the board watching as Meg Brooks was strapped to a neon orange, floating stabilization board and raced away to the hospital.
I’m sure you didn’t see the story going in that direction. I certainly didn’t expect Meg Brooks to jump and injure her back — I’m sure she didn’t either. But she did. And when the diving well was eventually clear of people long after the bell had rang for the next class, the head swim coach pushed his glasses up on his nose, folded his arms over his yellow polo, and shouted up at us impatiently: NEXT!
Can you guess what I did?
C. Turned around and ran back into the Tower
E. Stayed there until the Fire Dept was called to bring me down
The closest answer? D. Only, I wouldn’t characterize what I actually did as a leap or even a jump. I took one look at the girl (Katie something or other) to my right — a final absolution of sorts –and I walked off the ledge. I placed one foot in front of the other until there was only ether and I screamed the whole way down. I did it despite the fear that had been threatening my very life, despite anticipating that awful dropping sensation of my internal organs defying gravity, and despite seeing what happened to Meg Brooks and her back.
I’d like to make the easy analogy here that I walked off of that narrow platform when I was 21 and never looked back– that I’ve been leaping from precipice to precipice in my young life to much success. This is not the case. I have chosen “C” several times, running back into the tower at the slightest discomfort or when the army of fear marshals at my back. I have also had to be rescued from or shoved off of the board as well. And sometimes, like Meg Brooks, I have had the courage to leap, but have landed with an injury and been unable to continue. I have yet to faint or die, however, which gives me some hope about the nature of jumping off of diving platforms.
Perhaps all of those unsuccessful leaps have been practice jumps teaching me to fine-tune the art of jumping and learning how to land well. Perhaps with each try, I am gaining the confidence to walk up the stairs of the dark tower when there is only the slightest flickers inside telling me that this is the way I should go. Perhaps it is in the process of climbing the tower each time that I grow the faith required to leap even without knowing what awaits me at the bottom. And with every leap, whether successful or not, there is still the terrifying, knee-shaking, whole body quivering, but each time I’m able to do more than the previous jump. Maybe make a running leap or jump instead of a timid stepping off the board — maybe even go much higher than I’d ever imagined jumping.
So here I am again, toes curled on the board’s edge, ready to make another life-changing leap. May it be a never-ending refrain of my life. Huzzah!
* Meg Brooks is not her real name and she ended not having any permanent injury to her back though she did wear a neck brace to class a couple of times which caused much discussion and excitement.