Why, you might ask, would a slightly cranky aging teacher agree to lead a three day field trip for seventy fifth graders into the wild woods of New Hampshire? Why would she agree to sleep in a small, damp, musty cabin for two nights, knowing that she’d need to walk through the mud and rain to get to the bathroom for the nightly 3AM nature call?
Why in the world would a somewhat demoralized old fashioned teacher agree to eat in a big camp “eating lodge” for three days, passing around plates of chicken fingers and pouring water for the ten kids at the table, when she’d really love to be sitting down to a dinner of homemade ravioli and a glass of chianti at home?
When the weather forecast is for rain and wind and possible lightning, when the trip involves no less than three hours on a packed school bus (each way), and when the camp experience will include at least 5 miles of traipsing up and down various hills and trails, why would the aging teacher agree to go along once again?
Let me tell you why.
From the vantage point of just having arrived back home at last, and having changed into clean, dry clothes, I am ready to share my adventures. From the lovely viewpoint of a woman who has just had two good glasses of wine and a huge plate of Asian take-out, I am ready to share the secret joys of the annual fifth grade trip to the woods.
Please forgive any typos, grammatical errors, confusing references or dropped ideas. I still have the “Moose Song” reverberating through my skull. I’m reallllllllllllly tired.
But here are a few of the highlights of our three day trip to Camp Merrowvista in New Hampshire.
In the days leading up to the trip, when I thought I had done everything I could to reassure my nervous little travelers, I finally said, “Listen, I know you might get homesick. I’ll be right there with you, and you all know me. I know I’m not your Mom, but I do care about you.” And one of my sweet little smarties replied, “Well, you’re not Mom, but you’re the next best thing.”
On the bus heading up to the Camp, one of the kids asked me, “If I get lonely at night, will you come to say good night?”
And as we arrived and the kids fanned out to meet with their Camp Counselors, and the teachers and chaperones drew back to let them get to know each other, I was struck by how grateful I am to the parents who are willing to trust me and my colleagues with the care of the people they love the most on earth. A very, very humbling thought.
Late on the first night at camp, I was stationed at the door of the bathroom, shooing the boys to the right and the girls to the left. Making sure that no one would be accused of “peeking” at anyone else, making sure that everyone was clean and toothbrushed and ready to sleep. I greeted each set of “bathroom buddies” and then wished them “good night” on their return trip. Finally, after almost two hours of coming and going and washing and brushing and changing and marching to and fro, I began to wear out. My colleagues and I found ourselves telling the kids to just stay in bed already. At one point, as two lovely pink clad ladies wandered back to the bathroom for the fourth time in an hour, I heard myself barking out medical advice. “I know how the human body works!”, I informed them firmly. “You have emptied your bladders. Its impossible for you to need to pee again before six am. GOOD NIGHT!” I ushered them out the bathroom door and back to bed.
As fate would have it, I woke up at 6 and headed back to the bathroom to shower before the horde of little girls arrived. As I stood at the sink brushing my teeth, who should walk in but the same two little pink wrapped bathroom buddies. “Good morning!”, I chirped, as I tried to casually spit into the sink. The two girls stood there, mouths agape. “Um….” one of them began. The other chimed in, with awe, “Were you here all night?!”
And there were the moments just before each meal, when the kids were all seated and the adults were looking for places to sit. The kids who reached out, who called my name, who said, “Karen, sit with us!” The greatest gift in the world. Nothing, nothing, nothing could mean more to a worn out old teacher who is tired of rigorous assessments and data and testing. Nothing could ever mean more to me than those smiles and beckons of welcome.
The beauty of spending three days in the woods with the children is that I become reacquainted with the true meaning of education. I step away from the worksheets, where I have to poke and prod and beg the children to do the work with focus and energy. I get to watch them march through the mud, picking up sticks, asking about plants, looking for bugs. I get to listen as they let their minds soar. I am overwhelmed by the sheer power of their thoughts and ideas, and the flexibility and speed of their connections. “Do you think this is a moose footprint?” “No, moose don’t have round feet.” “Deer have pointy feet.” “My feet are soaked.” “You have to step over the mucky spots.” “I think monarch caterpillars have spots.” “Right. And this is milkweed.” “I can knock it down with this stick.” “You can’t knock down a moose.” “You can if its small.” “But not with a milkweed.” “I know. Its because of global warming.”
They might not be scientifically correct, but they are thinking, and comparing, and asking questions. They are wondering. They are filled with wonder.
On the first night of our trip, we went on our “Night Walk”. The Merrowvista staff dressed up in awesome costumes, and we all walked quietly into the woods, with all lights off. It was a very dark, misty night with no natural light to guide us. The kids walked in a nervous clump, followed by smiling, but slightly anxious chaperones. The Merrowvista leader remained calm and in control as the children sat in a circle on the damp ground. As one of the adults sitting behind them, I tried to stay silent as I listened in. In the course of a half hour, the young camp counselor taught the children about animal adaptations, night vision, echolocation and why pirates wore eyepatches. He managed to impart all of this knowledge while the kids shared these whispered comments. “This is scary!” “I see a light!” “I think those are zombies.” “Dude, zombies don’t use lights, they just attack.” “I don’t want to be attacked by zombies.” “SHSHSHSH. I’m learning about rhodopsin.” “I still think there are zombies.” “Oh, my God, my tooth fell out!”
And finally, on this last morning of our trip, as I sat in the dry dining lodge, nursing a second cup of hot coffee, I looked out the windows to the garden area just outside of the lodge. Two children were playing in the rain, completely unaware of any watching adult eyes. The girl was wearing a pair of pink flannel pants and a bright kerchief. The boy was in muddy jeans and a gray t-shirt. The rain that had been pouring down all night was now falling in a gentle mist. The kids were already wet, but they had just finished breakfast and were eager to set out on their next adventure. Each one stood on a wet gray stone, and they were face to face. Although neither of them spoke, they began to jump from stone to stone, in a perfectly synchronized rhythm. He jumped to her stone, splashing the water that lay on top. As he did, she jumped to the stone where he’d been standing, turning around at once to face him again. Their heads were bent, toward the muddy ground. The rain fell steadily and gently on their shoulders and heads. They didn’t speak, but both were smiling. After a few minutes, the sun began to shine its way through the melting clouds, and the kids were almost coated with light.
I stood inside, looking at them. Realizing that without a single word or plan, two children had instinctively created a beautiful, natural dance pattern on the wet stones. There was no competition, no sense of purpose. They simply jumped and danced and changed places. They were simply there in the moment, enjoying the fact that they were alive and young and dancing in the warm rain.
Who knows what lessons were learned in that brief time while the sun worked to show its face? There was no rubric. No data was collected. I can’t begin to assess the progress of the children toward any academic goal. But make no mistake: those kids were thinking and cooperating and problem solving and taking in the lessons from all around them.
That, my friend, is education. And that is why a tired old teacher finds it worth her while to give up the comforts of home for a few short days to have adventures in the woods with the kids who are entrusted to her care.