On the last evening of a three-day backpacking trip, 25 seventh graders and a few of us, teachers and chaperones, gathered around the campfire. After a lot of tired laughs and a few silly songs (think “The Motorcycle Song” by Arlo Guthrie), the band settled into a more serious vibe.
The 13-year-old tight circle of eyes stared through the late Craig Rubens, tour leader and director of movement and outdoor education at Shining Mountain Waldorf School, an independent pre-K-12 school in Boulder .
“Your future is approaching you from a distance,” said Rubens. Her voice was calm, just a little louder than the crackle of the fire. His white beard shone in the light of the fire.
Rubens has decades of experience working with youth in the backcountry. He and I had taught many of these students since they were in first grade, but this trip was unlike anything we’ve done together in class.
“And it’s your job as a teenager, to find out who you are and what kind of person you are becoming, to realize how separate your individual identity is from your family and your upbringing,” he told them.
It’s hard work, he admitted, and it’s part of the turmoil of adolescence. The students listened to him, equating his words with the radiant heat of the fire on their cheeks and the smell of pine smoke in their clothes.
The seventh graders had carried full bags through the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forest, past pines and golden aspen trees, to the prairie edge site where we set up camp. They took care of themselves and each other. They played stalking and hide-and-seek games like camouflage, sardines, and fox walking. They put up their own tarps and cooked their own meals.
They had also spent time alone, sitting with their thoughts for an hour in the forest, without their socks and shoes to be able to feel the skin of the mountains on the soles of their feet. Then they’d returned to camp in small groups, alone and off the trail, while we adults watched from afar.
On the one hand, I thought as we sat by the fire, it had been a powerful, even magical journey, watching our students learn and practice new skills and seeing them think and try to find their place. On the flip side, this adventure was nothing special – just another glimpse into Shining Mountain’s strong outdoor education program. The school’s middle and high school students go out every year, car camping, snowshoeing, exploring rivers, hiking.
“My hope,” Rubens said as we spoke afterward, “will [students] feel, through their experience, a greater sense of connection with their world, their classmates, the natural environment and, ultimately, with themselves. By taking on the natural challenges of travel, those that are physically tangible, ancient and in our blood – like creating their shelter and learning the knots, cooking their own food, making their own fires, drawing water from the source rather than to draw and purify it – they are better able to overcome physical and non-physical challenges by having a stronger core.
Indeed, even if this group had worked well together, there were challenges for some: homesickness, sleep disturbances, mild altitude sickness, brief social malaise. But, as Rubens wrote in an email to his parents afterwards, “each has taken on their own challenges with courage, humor, and relative ease. The group ship can be a wonderful way to overcome fears and meet the unknown when surrounded by wise counsel and supportive friends.
Seeing these faces, glittering an orange-red and clustered around the campfire under a star-filled sky, I could not agree.
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