top of page

The Student Saves the Teacher

Paul Simon sings, “You’ve got to learn how to fall before you learn how to fly.”


Well, there I was, learning how to fall, although at this particular moment, I certainly didn’t want to be falling. I was helpless, quickly plummeting to the ground while attached to an utterly useless 9.8 mm rope.


It was Sunday, I had arranged to pick up Tom early in the morning and then take him to lunch afterwards. We’d then visit the rock climbing gym and go climbing. What could go wrong?


Tom called Saturday morning. His probation officer scheduled a visit to his residence on Sunday morning, so he wasn’t going to be able to make it to church. He still wanted to climb though. I told him that was fine.


Tom was bright-eyed as we walked into the gym, the main wall casting a formidable and imposing shadow over his curly hair. “Spence, we’re going to be climbing that?” he muttered in amazement. Yup.


My friend Bethany and I helped him get his harness and shoes on. Bethany started climbing first as I belayed her from below. No issues at all as I showed Tom how to safely hold the rope. It was my turn to climb next, so Bethany and I switched roles. I tightened my shoes. I had broken my ankle climbing five weeks ago and this was my first time back in the gym. I was giddy with excitement. Climbing is one way I communicate with God – as in “God, please help me get up and down this wall safely because this is scary.” In moments of anxiousness and despair I turn to prayer, and in moments of beauty and joy, I offer thanks. I’ve learned through climbing that God has gifted our bodies to move and bend in ways we could never imagine.


I started up the wall and quickly reached the top. I told Bethany I was ready to be lowered, and then, all the sudden, I began to fall.


I weighed too much for Bethany. The rope was slipping through her hands. I plummeted towards the ground.


I wish I could say something flashed before my eyes or I had some great epiphany. I didn’t. All I knew in that moment was that I was falling very fast and this wasn’t going to end well. I’d heard a rumor a few months prior that someone else had fallen like this recently and broken their back. I hoped I wouldn’t break my back, but I knew my ankle was going to shatter upon impact.


It was over almost instantly. I hit the crash pads on the ground, left leg extended below me, right leg stretched out front at a ninety-degree angle. Bethany laid crumpled on the ground, Tom stood over her in shock. Her face conveyed extreme bewilderment and I could immediately smell burning flesh. She held her hand out, staring at it in disbelief. I thought I could see bone from where the rope burned through her hand.


I asked if she was okay, and she nodded in silence. I rushed to untie her from the rope, and Tom kept asking over and over again, “What happened? What went wrong? How did that just happen?”


We ran over to the check-in desk for the first aid kit. Bethany was in shock, her hand quivering, her voice broken and frantic. The girl working the desk looked at her hand, tossed us the first aid kit, and rushed off – the sight and smell of her burnt hands was simply too much for her. I cleaned her wounds and bandaged them, reassuring her the whole time that she was okay, that she would heal in no time at all. I acted like I’d seen and done this a thousand times before and Bethany believed me.


Once her wounds were clean and her hand was sitting on ice, we sat to hash out what went wrong. It was simple, Bethany couldn’t handle my weight and the rope quickly burned through her hands, causing her to lower me at an extremely rapid rate. Tom and I sat in amazement at the simple fact that I was unhurt. After all, I had plummeted 60+ feet in seconds. Bethany said Tom saved her. I asked how.


As soon as she started to lower me, Bethany was lifted off the ground by my weight. Tom, with no training and the speed of a leopard, pounced, holding her shoulders down, preventing her from being lifted off the ground, preventing me from spiraling in a free-fall to the ground. His quick thinking provided just enough friction on the rope to slightly arrest my fall and spare my spine from a sure fracture. I was amazed. Tom had saved me. Tom had kept me intact. This former student of mine had rescued me from certain injury.


All too often our work can feel never-ending. Few students go home. I can count four adult students from Burruss (Tom included) that have been released in the three years I’ve been working for HeartBound. It’s all too easy to become depressed upon seeing the same worn faces week after week, year after year.


Small moments of success make all the difference. This climbing incident was no small moment, for certain, but a beautiful reminder from God that even when the best laid plans of man - church, lunch, climbing – often go astray, He’s there for us, to guide and protect. Without Tom there, I could have broken my back or done irreparable harm to my healing ankle. But God had a plan for me, just as He has always had a plan for Tom, and just as He always has a plan for the 52,000 men, women, and children incarcerated in Georgia. Our job at HeartBound is simply to follow in faith and help people seek and find God’s plan for their lives. Thank you for helping HeartBound reach hearts bound by prison walls.


Have a blessed day.





0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Dostoevsky on Prison

Prisons do not exist in a vacuum. Forty-five percent of Americans have had a family member spend time in jail or prison. Ninety-five percent of the men, women, and children that we send to prison are

What a Prison Baptism Looks Like

There’s an old-time country artist I really like called Stonewall Jackson. I heard this song called “Waterloo” and was instantly hooked. A couple weeks later I came across another Stonewall Jackson cl

"How do you work with the poor?" You don't.

When HeartBound hosts our Returning Hearts Celebrations, I like to work the check-in table for families. Why? For many of the children, this will be their first visit to prison. They’re staring up at


bottom of page