The disclaimer to this blog is: I am 100% behind efforts to keep the Outdoor School Program (any Outdoor School Program) up and running, so this blog is biased. This is not some balanced piece explaining both sides; this is a disgruntled club memeber upset the club might be closing. As a 6th grader who attended Outdoor School in the Fall of 1983, as the Junior Counselor 3x over between 1989 and 1990, AND as a Resource Counselor in the Pennsylvania Outdoor School System in 1998, you might ask yourself why I feel qualified to right this blog? I feel qualified because I have been there, and Outdoor School is beautiful. However, my love affair with Outdoor School actually began in 1981, as a 4th grader listening to a presentation by the 6th graders who had just returned from their Outdoor School experience. Their stories of resources lessons, sleeping in cabins, and campfires, had me hooked. As a two-summer veteran of summer camp, Outdoor School sounded like my kind of place. (Since my love affair with summer camp has lasted decades, it is easy to see why I was such an easy sell!)
By the time I made it to Outdoor School 2 years later, I was a four-summer veteran of summer camp, so many of the things teachers want us to learn there went right over my head. Eating in a group setting where everyone gets firsts before you get seconds, being independent from home and thinking for yourself, being in the forest, learning about animals, etc. I had been there, done that-repeatedly.
However, even in my experienced state, I managed to take away two very important lessons. I had camped several times through Girl Scouts and with my family, and had never realized that forests, like other habitats, is a science. The web of life, watersheds, animal homes-it is all part of what we were/are. The forests wasn't just for camping and hiking; it had/has PURPOSE. The second thing I learned was that not everyone was like me economically. Of course I knew that in theory; by the 6th grade we had done many projects to help those that were disadvantaged. But no one in my neighborhood fit that category, and neither did any of my friends, ergo not in my backyard, right? Being with kids from different areas taught me a thing or two about what disadvantaged was.
The reality was though, I didn't walk away from Outdoor School a totally changed person. The things I learned are important, and I am grateful for them, but I can't lie and say I became The World's Most Empthetic 6th Grader. I was 11; not the most shining year I ever had. However, there is another side to Outdoor School that rarely gets mentioned. It is not in the PR I have seen, and outside the Hallowed Trees of Learning, few people realize that there is a whole another set of people learning important things at Outdoor School. I speak of the Junior Counselors (JC for short).
Not all Outdoor Schools are run the same. In the Portland-metro area, Outdoor School is made possible by the hundreds of high schools students who, every Fall and Spring, miss a week of regular school to make the magic of Outdoor School happen. They receive no pay, get to make up all the homework they missed, sleep in the cabins with a bunch of 6th graders, plus teach a resource . There are 4 Resource Subjects the 6th graders learn, and that the JC's must pick from to help teach-Water, Soil, Plants, and Animals. (The 6th graders rotate so they get one day for each, while the JC's stay with that subject the whole week.) For the record, I spent one program week on Water, before I switched and did my last two program weeks with Animals (Granola was HOT-all the girls wanted to be on Animals!) (And yes, we all had camp names.)
I swear on the keyboard I am using to write this: I learned more at Outdoor School as a Junior Counsleor, than I EVER learned as a 6th grader. Of course being on Water and Animals, I can tell you all about Watersheds, and that there are eels in this area. I got up close and personal to Helga the camp possum, and even stuck my finger in her pouch. Yes, I am way cool. Turkey Vultures are scavnegers that keep the forest clean, and clean water is the cornerstone of a healthy forest. Yes, yes, yes: Woodsy Owl and Smokey the Bear love me.
However, there is more at stake than being able to lead the best camp song at campfire:
*There are 2 JC's per cabin at night; my co-JC left midway through Outdoor School because she missed her boyfriend. I learned about repsonibilty, follow through, and what happens when people count on me and I let them down. (In all honesty she was a bitch and I wasn't sorry to see her go despite the added responsibilities.)
*I was the leader on the dead animal walk-an animal corpse with lots of maggots and beetles that had purposely been left near the trail so the kids could see decomposition at its finest. (Funny thing; no JC but me was excited to lead this walk!) However, one group of boys, who I thought would totally be into my subject, refused to stay on task. Finally out of exasperation, I asked what was so darn interesting, besides this really cool, dead corpse. Every single one of them answered, "the crickets." I got pissed, and in my sternest, teenage voice declared they could look at those at home; we had a lesson to finish. The quieter ones, followed me, but both the bolder two boys shook their heads and one of them said "no we can't; we don't have crickets at my house." These kids were from North Portland. Not only were crickets a rarity; going outside at night to see them wasn't done often either. Lesson here was live animals trump dead ones, don't interrupt the learning excitement wherever it may come from, and never under-estimate the coolness of nature.
*One little girl cried EVERYDAY that she was homesick. When Friday rolled around, she cried that it was time to go, and was upset at all she had missed by moping for home. I learned that time passes whether I am happy or sad. Sharing feelings is fine, and acknowledging when I am upset is good too, but if I don't watch out, good times will pass me by when I am not looking.
The list of lessons learned is endless: the music expertise of one of the Resource Counselors; the special needs class that loved EVERYTHING we did; the songs that kids sang over and over and over AND over again; watching turkey vultures soar through the air; the JC that came to Outdoor School with a chewing tobacco addiction; trying to whistle after eating a saltine cracker; what happens when it rains everday; celebrating Halloween outdoors with virtual strangers. I could go on and on, dredging up a lot of good memories. However the reality is, there are very few experiences like this one for high school students, and it would be a damn shame to end it now. I understand why the perception Outdoor School is a 6th grade program. The middle schools pay for it; not the high schools. But to limit Outdoor School to only the one demographic age, is to short change a program that benefits hundreds of students, of multiple ages, across the area. We as a society should be looking at how the cost benefits ALL students at Outdoor School, regardless of age, and realize the price tag isn't so steep. We also need to realize how Outdoor School benefits us all. Year after year, 6th graders and high school students headed off to Outdoor School, grew up, and became voters in this area. Portlanders have a reputation of being pro-environment; something that I doubt happened by accident.
We learn at Outdoor School, in the Soil Resource, that there is no such thing as dirt. Rather there are different layers of sub-strata, all with a different function but working together to form Soil. Soil provides the basis for plant life, which in turn supports animals and air. Outdoor School is the same way- the 6th graders are simply one layer. We need to see that there are numerous layers of Outdoor School, all working together to provide a program that supports other programs down the line. The numerous parties involved in Outdoor School, 6th grade and high school alike, become the stewards of each other, and the planet we live on. Not a bad exchange for anyone.
And my camp name was, and remains, Zinka.