Slowly, slowly footfall

Posted on October 4, 2011

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It was a comedic sight. Harold walked with his backpack half open, sleeping bag rigged with rope and spare straps dangling against the backs of his knees, wearing black jeans, a black sweatshirt in the eighty degree day. Malcolm’s bag of Oreo’s protruded over the top of his back zipper, the baggy of sunscreen, hand wipes, batteries, emergency water and the newly purchased hiking shoes adorned his body.

We were walking in the Ohlone Regional Forest; a tract of land about forty miles from the inner city school in Oakland, California where we lived and worked together. The boys were both sophomores in high school, had been my students way back in middle school, were classified as “special education” for various state defined reasons, and generally were brilliant in their individual ways, but sometimes had a helluva time meeting the state standards.

I had made a promise back to the two of them when they left eighth grade that we would head out to the woods for a camping trip. I didn’t hold that promise the first year, because I took off on my own international trip to Central America. I taught for one more year at the middle school they’d attended, and then decided that if I was going to remain in public education, I needed to be working at a much different looking place. I joined them at the school I had once recommended they attend- its focus on oppression, liberation, and self empowerment. Of course, the first day back in the class, they made sure I remembered my word to get them outdoors.

In early September 2010, I applied and was accepted to join Bay Area Wilderness Training on their Outdoor Leadership Training. It’s mission to get urban youth outdoor was one that I was familiar with, but this trip was special. Twelve of us carpooled to the Tahoe National Forest, learned basic team building, outdoor leadership and back country first aid. We also spent five days in a beautiful part of the wilderness, hiking for a few miles everyday, role playing scenarios, and leading the rest of the adults as if they were our students; teaching songs, riddles, nature based facts, and a general appreciation and reverence for the out of doors. We did yoga and cooked healthy, vegetarian campfire food, while sipping tea and then retiring into our sleeping bags, sans tents, in high elevation.

While that experience was personally deeply gratifying and healing, it also reaffirmed my belief that youth need to be given the intentional time and space to be outdoors. They need to have structured, enriching and discovery oriented activities to be in the woods; feeling like they are free, but also having the safety of an adult around.

I realize that this is something that few of my students, hell, few of my friends (especially those city loving folk I know) have ever really had the chance to experience. The mission that Richard Louv put forth in his book Last Child in the Woods to save children from nature deficit disorder resonated with me immediately.

While I have not done my due diligence of gathering research and testimonials to provide supporting evidence for my argument, I feel fairly confident and qualified to attest to the power of working outdoors. I bear witness to the the tension it relieves for students familiar living in deeply cemented cities, with few butterflies and bumbling bees, no wildlife save the birds on the central lake, and a water level that seems to fall pretty significantly. These students are literally trapped in  their surroundings, with no easy way out, and few adults who are willing to bring them along on a hike or an overnight camping trip.

Again, without the evidence, but with the power of observation, students who have the chance to work in a garden, play in the nearby creek,  have recess on a grass field, seem to work out a social order amongst themselves in an positive way. There is also an important factor of not having an adult or teacher barking orders and closely monitoring their every action that provides liberation.

That day, Harold, Malcolm and a few others walked, for about five miles, along a creek. Every couple miles, something would come unravelled from Harold’s  backpack. They were troopers though, and we kept walking, along the river, passing hordes of white folks used to this sort of thing, encountering few people of color.

We were joined on the hike with my sister Michelle, and another nearby high school teacher, Sam, who brought three of her students. We stopped for lunch off the trail along the river. The boys hopped into the middle of the river, fearlessly balancing on rocks no bigger than a frisbee; leaping from space to space. Harold used his athleticism to lead, Malcolm awkwardly stretched his gangly limbs from place to place, crouching for fear of slipping, and eventually lost his balance, and shin deep into the river he went, but laughed.

We continued the hike way uphill, to our desolate and very isolated campsite five miles away from the car, primitive, no running water or barbecue pits.

We rested in the midafternoon sun on spread out sleeping pads; the youth led activities, taught each other card games and icebreakers, laughed, passed gas inside closed tents and giggled hysterically, wanted to explore more and hiked to the top of the ridge, encountered wild turkeys. I almost put my foot on top of  a rattlesnake while posing for a picture and backing off the trail to get a better view.

We taught them how to filter water, cook pasta and sauce over a little burner, keep a clean Leave No Trace backcountry kitchen. We taught them very few things, as the experience was all we needed. From sheer exhaustion, everyone fell asleep around 9 p.m. and was up by 7. My ideal time to start hiking, so we packed the bags and tents, made sure all the scraps were picked up and packed away, and off we went on our return trip, along a new trail.

As teachers, we had to impose a little bit of structure, so we paired strangers up on the second day, and spaced the hike out so we were no longer walking in a single file (after the grueling thousand foot climb to start the day, nothing like working out the kinks by diving right into it first thing in the morning). Students talked about future goals, what they hoped to accomplish (some were heading to college the next fall, some in danger of repeating a grade), and what they had learned by spending a weekend away. We regrouped about three miles from the end of the trail, where we would re-emerge into the world, drive back to the city, and plug back in.

Before doing so, on the edge of where the open fields of flowing grass turned into a dark forest, we said stop. Each student would have a “solo” hike. Sam went off way in front of the group about a mile up trail and waited. I sent each student off “on their own” with five minutes spaced between them. I encouraged them to listen to the woods, the wind, and really fall into their own rhythm. This was a miniature slice of nature experienced alone, a beautiful and valuable things. They were obviously scared, but as we grouped back together, they recalled how they had listened to birds, the creaking of the trees, and listened to their own heart beat.

We walked out of the woods together, past a group of open grazing cattle, back into the gravel lot where our cars were parked. A final circle of appreciations for everyone, a sorting out of equipment and snacks for the drive, and then off we went. The headphones and cell phones were dug out of the backseat where they had remained, the insular world crept back in, and the conversation was short as everyone fell asleep on the way back to the city.

Malcolm woke on the off ramp. “Take a left at the first liquor store, my house is the third driveway.”  I helped him get all his scattered belongings from the trunk, and he thanked me ever so softly. Harold, the rougher and more closed man of the two, shook my hand and just said, “Pretty cool Mr. E.”

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