Overheard during the girls’ arrival in the desert: “This is so fucking retarded!”

Overheard while the girls waited for the bus to come pick them up after 4 days in the desert: “I am so totally coming back here!”

I think that mostly sums up the experience. It was hard and awesome. There were 8 women on as staff out in the field, plus two more women who came on the 2nd and 3rd day to be our rock climbing specialists. The 8 core staff spent Saturday and Sunday prepping for the program. None of us had worked together before, so it was our chance to get to know each other’s style a little bit, to create a curriculum that utilized our strengths, and to decide on various “united front” issues (do we care if they cuss? what’s the policy on personal disclosures? etc…).

The women were amazing. One runs her own teen girl rock climbing program in Bend. Another manages the local climbing gym. One just got back from 10 months of working wilderness therapy programs in Maine (“I’ve slept on the ground far more often than in a bed in the last 10 months,” she said.). Anyway, they all rocked. It was so refreshing to be back in an environment where people understand the consensus process and use it effectively. It highlighted for me one of the reasons that I love wilderness education work; it seems like that level of respectful interaction is a lot more common among wilderness educators.

On Monday, we headed out to Vantage, WA and a local climbing site. Staff drove out in a van together with all the gear and the girls left from their school in Tacoma in their buses. Staff got to the site a couple hours before the girls so we could get our site set up a little bit and get a little bit grounded in the space before we were “on”. The girls’ arrival could be felt as a palpable ball of angst and fear hidden under a thin veneer of contempt. We started with a group game, a bit of running to shake out the kinks of the bus ride, but the instructor leading the game called a halt to it after not too long. Later, she explained that the punching and kicking going on on her side of the field were getting out of hand.

We split into our small groups. Sets of 8 to ten students and two instructors camped in the same general vicinity, but far enough away to be distinct. As the students settled in and had a chance to ask their questions (“what will we do if there’s an earthquake?”) they mellowed and at least seemed ready to accept their fate, even if they weren’t happy about having to spent the next couple days in the desert (“where are all the cute boys?”). We explained how things were going to work for the next few days, including how to pee in the desert. Peeing and pooping outside is something that most of these girls had never even thought of doing before. Those of you who’ve done it (probably most of the people who read this blog) know that they’ve been missing out, but they were pretty sceptical.

Wilderness educators in general seem to be pretty open about bodily functions. You’ve gotta be pretty okay with talking about poop if you’re going to work either with kids or in the woods. Combine the two (kids and woods, not kids and poop, although that works too), and you have a recipe for non-stop inappropriate staff jokes. In this instance, a couple of the girls announced that they weren’t going to poop until they got back home. In a staff-only conversation about that, one of the instructors said, “If there’s one thing that will ruin a camping trip, it’s a little fecal impaction.” Those of you who do wilderness education already understand how that was hilarious. Those of you who don’t won’t think it was funny no matter how much I try to explain (Preston gave me the “mm-hmm, that’s nice dear” look when I told him the story); suffice to say that Team Fecal Impaction became our official staff group name, used only when students weren’t around. We even had a team cheer, which it would be impossible to appreciate in written form.

The first night was a little rough for some of the girls. We had given them the basic run-down about how to set up the sleeping pads and sleeping bags, but we hadn’t realized to what extent they just had no experience whatsoever with any kind of camping. My co-instructor, Lina, woke up sometime in the wee hours of the morning with the hunch that some of the girls were cold. She got up to check on them and found that indeed they were all awake and freezing. She hooked them up with extra warm stuff to wear and got them settled so they could make it through the night. (I slept blissfully through the whole thing, even though Lina and I were sharing a tent. I was in my fancy new sleeping bag, bought just before this trip with xmas money, and for the first time EVER I was able to sleep through the night on a camping trip because I didn’t wake up with the feeling that my feet were about to just shatter and fall right off of my legs because they were so cold.)

The next morning, we found that most of them hadn’t known how to inflate their Thermarests correctly, or hadn’t had their sleeping bags zipped up (!), or various other things that we totally take for granted. So I hauled out my Sleeping Bag of Blissful Repose and also my Thermarest and gave a little demo while they had breakfast the next morning. You have to inflate the pad, and zip the sleeping bag up (all the way!), and it works better to put your clothes in the sleeping bag with you than it does to put more clothes on your body, and look at this nifty little drawstring so that I can close up everything but a little breathing hole! After that demo, and the fact that Lina started putting butter in everything we ate (including hot cocoa) in order to up people’s metabolisms, the girls all slept warm through the nights also, even though it was clear and cold in the desert at night.

On the second day, half the students went rock-climbing and the other half went exploring on a nearby mesa. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we were totally blessed with the weather. Even a desert-hater such as myself was basking in all that sunlight and warmth. It was our turn for climbing the first day, and every girl climbed, most of them more than once, even if they were afraid of heights. On of the girls in my group later explained that even though she was really scared, it was such an amazing view from the top of the climb that she made herself hang there in the harness for a minute so that she could look around. As you would expect, it was an amazing experience for all the girls, and I didn’t hear anyone say anything about it being retarded.

The next day was exploration day for us. This was the one big frustrating moment for me of the whole trip, because it tied in with my big issue with compulsory school in general. I’ve written before about how traditional school systems (in the modern European meaning of the word “traditional”, not in the “native to this area” meaning) create people who don’t believe they are capable of making rational decisions about their own safety and well-being. One of the things I love about wilderness education is the amount of personal responsibility placed on the kids, and how amazingly well they all do with it. So on the morning of that third day the 4 staff people involved in the exploration got together to create our gameplan for the day. We also had with us one of the school chaperones, a science teacher who none of the girls really liked. The chaperone was joining us for the day and was sitting in on the planning. We had heard in the report from the previous day that the other group hadn’t enjoyed the hike very much. One of the reasons was that the path was fairly rocky (all that manky lava rock everywhere), so they felt like all they could see was their own feet and the feet of the person in front of them. In our planning meeting that morning, I suggested that we start out the day with a quick lesson in foxwalking so that they could walk and look at the scenery at the same time. The chaperone immediately jumped in and said she thought it was really important that they students all watch where they are walking. “It’s a dangerous trail; I wouldn’t want anyone to fall down,” she insisted. Keep in mind we are talking about high school sophomores here. When I tried to explain how foxwalking allows you to look around AND not fall down at the same time (and believe me, if I can do it, then it doesn’t take much coordination), she insisted that she thought it was really important that everyone look at their feet while they walk. Finally, another instructor suggested that we could just teach it to them as an option, and if they felt like the ground was rocky then they could choose to look at their feet, whichever they preferred.

I get so frustrated when dealing with people who want to micro-manage every part of an experience for people who are younger than them. I’ve struggled with this a lot as I work in the public schools. The students have been taught that they aren’t capable of handling personal responsibility, which puts me in the awkward position of having to enforce rules that I don’t agree with in order to accomplish my job (to teach a fun science program) without children bouncing off the walls. My first exposure to the public school system’s military approach (which you’ve already read about if you followed the link above to my previous writing) had me all up in arms about the demeaning way the kids were treated.

However, that same school that I wrote about also ended up being one of the first classes that I taught when I started this job. Consistently, the kids were well-behaved and easy to deal with. They were engaged, curious, intelligent, and respectful. “Well, maybe I’m wrong,” I thought. “Maybe kids need a lot of structure at this stage in order to be successful.” And consistently over time in different schools around the area, I’ve found that the kids given the most freedom were hardest to deal with, while the kids with what seemed like excessive structure were polite and respectful and much easier to teach.

But a new school recently dinged the bell that most of you have probably already heard. In the first class I taught there, the kids were eerily silent. I actually ran out of science material and ended up killing a bunch of time at the end of the class, which has never happened to me before. It has also never happened to me before that I had a group of kids wait in line for something and they remained absolutely silent the whole time. No talking among friends, or even any arguing about who was trying to take cuts. Nothing. I ended up using up all my material while they stood silently in line waiting patiently for me to hot glue their color mixers together. It was weird, but I thought maybe it was just an off week.

The next week was the same. If you’ve read Watership Down, then you’ll know what I mean when I got the sense that they were just tharn. (If you haven’t read Watership Down, go immediately to your local library and check it out. My brother has a theory that part of the reason we are the way we are is that when everyone else’s parents were reading them Dick and Jane bedtime stories, our mom was reading us “children’s stories” (wink, wink) about the search for a utopian society. It’s a really good book.) The students all sat perfectly still; they didn’t talk out of turn or without raising their hands. They also didn’t ask questions, nor where they particularly interested in answering questions posed to them. There was no spark in their eyes. It was during this second class that I noticed the sign next to the classroom door saying, “No Bathroom Breaks 15 Minutes Before Or After Recess!” While I understand the reasoning, it’s exactly this kind of stupid rule that I hate about the micro-managing schools. Because what if I have to go pee and I can’t hold it for 10 minutes? Are you going to make me stand here and pee my pants in the classroom? How do you know whether I’m telling the truth or not? Are you saying that you know my body better than I do? Are you saying that my opinions about what my body needs are meaningless? Are you saying that I have no say over what happens to my body? How fucked up is that?

But whatever, lots of schools have similar rules, so I still didn’t get the connection until the third class. As some of you may remember from elementary school, elementary teachers often decorate their classroom doors. Often in the fall they put up the construction-paper-leaves, winter is the snowflakes, spring is the little pots of construction-paper-daffodils. You remember. And often there will be some inspirational quote included. You know, like the kind they put on inspirational posters. “Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.” Well, on the day of the my third visit to the school, one of the classrooms had a newly decorated door. I don’t even remember how it was decorated because the inspirational quote dominated the whole door. Written in the height of horizontal construction paper, so letters 8 inches tall, and taking up most of the door was this saying.

“A classroom without rules is like a zoo without cages.”


This is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start. When I passed it on to some Mad Science co-workers they started brainstorming equivalent “inspirational” quotes. “A classroom without rules is like a prison without beatings.” “A classroom without rules is like a mental ward without straightjackets and electro-shock therapy.”

Also on that same day I overheard two of the teachers talking about how hard their classes were to control that day. “If you give them even 5 minutes of free time, it’s impossible to get them under control again,” one of them said. I taught my class and left the school really bummed out about the potential for positive change in future generations. And that’s when it all gelled for me about my confusion with the militaristic schools versus the freedom-encouraging schools. The super-structured schools DO make kids easier to deal with. It makes them polite and attentive. However, this is not the way to make good grown-ups. We have a societal picture of what a “good kid” looks like. This kid does their homework without complaint, helps around the house, never challenges authority, conforms to social norms like cleanliness and appropriate attire, gets good grades, and gets along well with others. And that kid is WAY easier to deal with, so I can certainly understand why that has become our social ideal. However, that kid grows up to be a person who accepts the status quo without thought, who never challenges authority or tries to improve circumstances, who conforms to social norms without thought, and who doesn’t see themselves as capable of independent thought or action. On the other hand, the kids who can’t stay in their seats, who are so excited about whatever we’re talking about that they have to blurt out their answers RIGHT AWAY, the kids who suspect that they might actually know more than their teachers, and who have the freedom to use the damn bathroom whenever they need to…well, yes, they are harder to deal with. Just the same as it’s always harder to deal with autonomous beings. Consensus decision-making is way harder than dictatorial decree. But those kids grow up to be the kind of citizens I want to have in the country where I live.

Fortunately, before I had a chance to go off on that diatribe with the science teacher in the desert on the third day of our trip (did you remember that that’s where we were?), one of my co-instructors figured out how to work around it and we all agreed on a way that would allow us to give the students their own power (choose to foxwalk or not, as you prefer) and short-circuited the teacher’s dictatorial tendencies.

The exploration was good, the desert was beautiful, and the girls enjoyed the various team-building challenges we had set up (blindfold walk, handcuffs, etc.). After dinner, all the groups got back together around the campfire and Trisha led something called an Appreciation Circle. When she originally described how it was going to work, it seemed, you know, nice, but not that amazing. So you might not be able to appreciate how really cool it ws from just this written description. Basically, everyone sat in a circle with their eyes closed. A few girls at a time were selected to stand up. Then the staff would call out some quality, “Touch someone who you think is very courageous.” Then the standing girls would have a chance to go around the circle and touch however many people they thought were courageous. After a couple of qualities, those girls would sit down and close their eyes with everyone else. The staff would pick a few more girls and call out a few different qualities. This continued until each girl had had a chance to stand up and give her appreciations. At this age in particular, it seems really hard for kids to give honest appreciations of each other. This way, it’s anonymous and they seem freer to express themselves. And it’s intense to be sitting there with your eyes closed and having people touching you for things you didn’t know people thought about you, for being funny or strong or a good leader. It was nice.

The fourth morning, we got up and packed up camp. We had a quick appreciation circle in our small groups. I wanted to demonstrate for them what it looks like to give someone an appreciation when it’s not anonymous. So we sat in a circle and Lina (my co-instructor) and I both told each of the 7 girls in our group something that we were really impressed with about them in the last couple days. Then they packed their lunches for the bus ride home and we spent the rest of the morning picking up camp and hauling gear over to the bus pick-up point. Then we drove back to Seattle in the van, spent around 4 hours unpacking gear, washing dishes, sorting leftover food, and debriefing the trip. We tried explaining to Stacy (the course director, who had not been on the trip) about Team Fecal Impaction, but apparently you had to actually be there.