Saturday, February 4, 2012

Love, Hate and the OEC

We had planned the two-day backpacking trip the weekend before, but little did we know how much we'd need “the tonic of wilderness,” as Thoreau called it. I had picked out the quote the morning before, but little did I know the levels on which it would apply. I had watched my friend's speech the previous night, but little did I know how strongly it would resonate.

I hadn't connected the unrelated signs, but after the most challenging and at times hellish week we've experienced this school year at the Outdoor Education Center, they now seem to have been three serious omens.

I suppose this presents as good a time as any to elaborate briefly on the nature of my job for those of you who say “Outdoor Education Center? What exactly does that mean?” Each week, 200-250 fifth-graders from the Houston Independent School District make the two-hour drive north and east from America's fourth-largest city to our remote campus near the remote town of Trinity. From midday on Tuesday through midday on Friday I lead two groups of students. During the mornings and afternoons it's a coed group of 10-14 which I instruct in our five three-hour class blocks (Adventure, Aquatics, Conservation, Farm, and Forest Study); over mealtimes, evenings, and overnights I supervise a boys' cabin of the same size.

Last week, we welcomed students from Oak Forest and Longfellow elementary schools. As our staff's resident English major and de facto librarian, I present some kind of motivational and/or random quote at our morning meeting before student arrival. I usually try to put some effort into choosing said literary nugget, hoping perhaps naively that resonant words might give a few co-workers a lift, but last Monday I had been too distracted with finishing one book (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, finally) and starting another (Chad Harbach's fantastic new baseball novel, The Art of Fielding) to peruse the internet for the next morning's quote. At the last minute, recalling the name of one of the visiting schools and the dire weather forecast, I googled Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and settled on his simple but fitting words: “The best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain.”

I introduced the quote to my co-workers as appropriate both literally (severe thunderstorms were projected for the next 48 hours) and metaphorically (with two staff members departing for new jobs this month, a small deluge of change is currently engulfing our little OEC bubble). There would be a third kind of downpour this week, however, one that I could not have predicted when choosing Longfellow's words. Or perhaps an outpour would be the more appropriate term, for it was a week full of fifth-grade emotions and behaviors I could not have fathomed before they arrived on seven yellow school buses. Outright racism from students, the worst bullying I'd seen all year, and a fistfight in front of the entire camp were probably the most torrential bursts of the week, but it seemed like nearly every teacher had more than his or her fair share of trying moments. Add in a tornado warning that lasted most of Wednesday morning, confining everyone to the oh-so-spacious floors of our concrete bathhouses and there's your recipe for a memorable tempest of a week at the Outdoor Education Center.

My particular cabin group was not exempt, which brings me to the second of the three omens. My brilliant friend Tim graduated from Harvard last spring and gave a commencement address called “Love, Hate and Harvard.” I finally found it on YouTube on Monday night, and his words set the tone for a week in which those two most intense emotions dominated my cabin. When my eleven rowdy students weren't chasing each other all over camp or nearly coming to blows over whose t-shirt was whose, they had their arms around each other and smiles on their faces like a pack of bros teetering home from a frat party.

One particular bungling, Caliban-like student, suffering from severe but non-medicated ADHD, began the week as the laughingstock of the cabin. Despite my numerous remonstrations on the importance of respect, the bullying commenced whenever my back was turned, and knowing nothing different, the target soaked in the attention and played along with the mockeries. Yet something changed ever-so-slightly by the end of the week. Perhaps because he never fought back physically and kept on smiling, the bullies began to accept their idiosyncratic cabinmate. They stopped laughing at him and starting laughing with him, finding a space for him as the good-natured goofball of the pack who just happened to speak and act a little differently from the rest of them. The turning point came during the performance of the cabin skit, when our awkward friend starred in front of the whole camp in his self-volunteered role as “The Ugliest Man in the World.” Afterward, back at the cabin, one of the ringleaders, clad in his fresh Nikes and flat-brimmed ballcap, told his former victim, “I'm gonna miss you the most when we leave tomorrow.” Hate had turned to a quirky kind of love and all of a sudden, the doubled effort that the week had required seemed deeply worthwhile.

Even so, it was with great relief that two co-workers and I headed to the woods for the weekend. Hiking the first 23 of East Texas' hundred-mile Lone Star Trail, we let our ears heal from a week full of shouting 11-year olds with the quiet of the wild. And while it wasn't much of a wilderness trip – we saw a grand total of zero non-domestic quadrupeds as most of our time was spent trekking through previously clear-cut forests now inhabited only by the fast-growing loblolly pine – the simplicity of trail life served as a perfect Thoreauvian tonic after a manic week.


That week and its omens are long gone now, another having come and passed since I wrote most of the above words. This one featured a much calmer cabin and no tornado warnings, yet there were still plenty of wonderful plot-lines running through the four days. A rambunctious girl in my class, for example, began the week flipping off boys and doing anything to look older than eleven; by Friday, she was belting out camp songs and telling her cabin teacher how cool the nerdy girl in their group really was, declaring honestly that she had changed this week.

Of course, the tragedy of it all is that my co-workers and I will probably never know if her claim holds true. We see our students for four days and carry the lofty goal of sparking lifetimes of stewardship and tolerance (at least the idealists like I do). We don't know if they will actually stop bullying each other and start turning off the lights when they leave a room. Optimism, I suppose, is a prerequisite.

As one of our coordinators put it, “every Tuesday is the first day of school.” When that means a frenzied week is over and a new one has arrived, you love it. When it means you'll never see that amazing kid again who begged to hide in your backpack so he didn't have to leave, you hate it.

Still, it's hard to complain when I realize I'm being paid to spend time outdoors with kids. And the handful of students for whom I might really make a difference: that's like the dazzling vista after a hike that was already rewarding on its own. Even if a tempest or two passed through along the way.