Every day I am a runner in a maze as if I were Zelda from the first Nintendo system. One day I teach, and they learn meanings of words like “scruples” and facts about the real Dracula. The next day I am shadowing a student who at any moment could disappear into the woods, or I am intervening in a verbal battle between a bully and his or her prey. “Enough with the side conversations. Get off the table, please. Focus on your work. Stop cursing.” These are a few of my favorite daily declarations. But then there might be a Wednesday or Thursday when I get to play Scrabble with my struggling readers. There may be a Friday when I can get the most difficult kid to work on vocabulary for at least twenty minutes.
Then there are the experiences I can safely say don’t happen in every other public school. We as teachers and students have the opportunity to connect to each other in nature. The gardens are planted and maintained by the students under the guidance of Tim, our Environmental Science teacher, who willfully admits to his students that his plants are his children. Whether the kids know it or not, he infects them with that empathy. He gets our toughest kids to care about the praying mantises he raises. They listen when he tells them not to kill bees and spiders because without them, there wouldn’t be growth. He can also scare the shit out of kids who disrespect his wishes, and that is a valuable skill. Students learn what happens when lines are crossed, and we teach what it means to be a part of this earth.
We have our own alpacas, goats, chickens, rabbits, and a pony. Kids in our animal care program rake hay and crap, get head-butted by Wiggles the Mean-Bastard goat, feed the uneaten salad from the cafeteria to the chickens, and hose down the alpacas on hot days. Students quickly get over the smell and learn the therapeutic power of caring about beings other than themselves. Keep in mind, the animal care and the gardening occur on school grounds. When we take some of the kids out of the building for the day, we reach a whole new level of teacher/student connectedness through nature.
This past fall I went hiking with some of the students. Since our kids are being raised under the endless deluge of technological distraction, it’s easy for people to assume they wouldn’t get anything out of a hike. Well, unfair presumptions are a big reason why our kids are who they are. The students seemed to meld with the trees, the rocks, and the streams – the wild seemed to fit with the wild, in a sense. They climbed without complaint, put their feet in the water, some went for full submersion without a second thought. At one point we found a rocky but climbable cliff overlooking a small lake. With the pre-autumn sun pounding down on us, we sat and gazed at the stillness of the water and the changing of the leaves. Some skipped rocks or climbed trees, and for a few hours the world made more sense. We didn’t have to worry about anything except the slippery moss, the sandwiches warming in the van, and the reality that connecting to nature will never be part of the common core.