Working at the Mono Cliffs Outdoor Education Centre was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. The spectacular landscape of the Niagara Escarpment and the ancient Violet Hill Spillway was our classroom across the rythyms of four seasons, and every group that came to the Centre was enriched by their experience.
Yet in all the wonderful memories of global conferences and student environmental leadership forums and a myriad of exciting programs developed for both school children and adult professional development, two experiences stand out in my mind.
The first was with a Grade Five class from North York School Board. We had just finished their check-in procedures and lunch, and were getting ready to take them on an orientation tour of Mono Cliffs Provincial Park. Now, it was always my style to check out the live wires in the group, the characters, the ones who looked like they might be living just a little close to the edge in their classroom behaviour and win them over. So at the beginning of the hike, I picked one perfect candidate and said, “Mark, you are going to lead the first leg of the hike.”
His eyes widened and he smiled, but his teacher grabbed me by the arm and said, “You’re going to let Mark lead the hike?” in an incredulous and somewhat fearful voice.
“Oh, yes,” I replied with a smile, and turning to Mark I said, “You are going to lead the group down this trail until you come to the first fork in the trail. Don’t let anyone go past you on the hike, warn people behind you about any tripping dangers, and keep the group together at the trail intersection. Got it?” “Yes, sir, Skid!” he replied and off he went into the forest with the class behind him.
I physically had to hold the teacher back at the end of the line. She was frantic that her class was following a student she obviously didn’t hold high on the leadership totem. I kept slowing her down, pointing out wildflowers and sharing nature stories until the class was out of site down the trail. At one point she looked up and realized she couldn’t see a single student and literally went white. “There are cliffs near here, aren’t there?” she asked.
“Yep,” I said, “Eighty to a hundred feet high – beautiful views from the edge – we should be there soon.” She took off at a run down the trail. But as we turned the corner, there was the class, neatly lined up behind Mark who stood, arms crossed looking cool, at the fork in the trail. She stopped, amazed. I walked right up to Mark, said, “Well done. Now, you take on the job of sweep with me, last person on the trail, making sure that you gather everyone up and no one falls behind. Who wants to be the next leader?” Hands shot up like bridesmaids reaching for the bouquet, but I picked Cynthia, the quiet little red-haired girl who hadn’t put up her hand at all. “Thanks for volunteering, Cynthia,” I said, “Same rules, gather the group up at the next fork in the trail.” And off she went.
Mark and I walked silently together at the end of the pack. He kept looking up at me, and finally grabbed my hand. I stopped and looked at him and smiled and said, “What?” He had this wondrous look of joy on his face, and he looked up at me with the biggest smile ever and said, “Wow, thank you!” “For what,” I replied. He smiled, “That’s the first time in my life a teacher actually let me do something real.”
Perhaps it was working in the idyllic setting of Mono Cliffs that had made me think exposing children to experiential education was the norm. Mark suddenly made me realize how many children sit inside four walls, staring at the symbols of their real world on the printed pages of a book, on plastic desks, under artificial lights, while the greatest classroom of all sits just outside the door. Six years in school, and this was the first time a teacher had let a student do something real
And as teachers we do this for 190 days a year, for six hours a day, from age 5 to 17, and on their eighteenth birthday we hand them the steering wheel and say, “Good luck. Good luck finding a job, finding a partner in life, taking care of yourself and your community. I know, we kept you in the passenger seat and you never really got to drive the car while you were in school, but Good Luck!”
That incident reminded me of a wonderful book of poems I received in my first year of teaching. It was by Albert Cullum, titled, “The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died, But Teacher, You Went Right On.” The most poignant poem is from a student having trouble succeeding at school, and he looks across the classroom from his rainbow filled sky to his teacher sitting with his head stuck in an ancient map of the world, (later I noticed the child’s folded hands had the middle finger stuck up) and he says,
“I was good at everything
– honest, everything! –
until I started being here with you.
I was good at laughing,
Yeah, I was good at everything!
But now I’m only good at everything
On Saturdays and Sundays…”
Good luck, Mark.