This memory from way back in my teaching days popped up a few days ago. Not really sure what prompted it. Maybe it’s all the social media frenzy of spring canoe trips and stuff.
Let’s just get to the story…
At my last school, I taught Grade 5, while a good friend and fellow teacher taught Grade 6. At the beginning of each school year, usually late September or early October, we would combine our two classes together and take them on a re-treat most often at a camp in the Muskoka area.
Now, there may be teachers reading this and you all know that this is true. We’ve had that one child who comes into the class in September, with a bucket full of behaviour and coping issues.
My second year at this particular school gave me this young fella.
Now, one thing I always did, was never read a student’s OSR file or ask many questions about children coming into my class from their previous teacher. I didn’t want to have a biased formed about a child before they came to me. I always felt that every September in Grade 5, each child should start with a clean slate. What they did with the slate as the year went on, we would deal with.
But, I certainly knew of this young guy.
That year, September rolled around and in he walked. He was a great kid, but a handful at best.
I’m not proud of this at all, but this guy and I just seemed to “battle it out” all the time. Not every day, but there were those days. Like the time in phys-ed, when the class sort of had him spinning in circles. He was frustrated; they were frustrated; I was frustrated. In fact, he was so upset he turned and in a flash of anger; threw a perfect fastball at me, just missing my head. I saw it coming at the last second and just had enough time to move my head slightly.
Yes, he was a handful.
But, for some reason, we didn’t do the retreat thing in the fall that year. We went in the spring stayed at a youth camp somewhere on the Trent-Severn Waterway.
The retreats generally followed a format of tons of activities, great food and little sleep!
On the second afternoon, the staff had planned canoeing, including a trip through one of the locks on the Trent-Severn canal. The outdoors staff lead the kids through instruction on safety, canoe stuff and then the kids paired off or maybe in a group of three.
Normally when on a retreat and when canoeing was offered, I would usually just grab a canoe and solo around, “herding strays” back into the group. This year, however, there was one kid who couldn’t find a partner. Yup, my little friend. None of the kids in the class wanted him as a partner or in a small group of three.
So, instead of forcing him into a group, I said, “You’re coming with me.”
And that’s when everything started to change.
I got him fitted into a PFD; found him a youth size paddle that wasn’t two feet taller than him; put him into the front of the canoe and off we went.
While the other kids and outdoors staff were in a larger group learning how to paddle(we still had to paddle to the lock on the canal), I just started off exploring with this young fella in the front. I showed him a couple of easy paddle strokes and then it started.
Mr. McKenzie, “can we look over there!” “Do you think we can paddle under that bridge?” “Wow, is that a beaver house?” “do you think we can paddle through that large pipe(a culvert)” “How did you learn to paddle so well?”
And that’s how the rest of the afternoon went. We paddled together; he asked about 958 questions about everything he saw.
We went through the lock, which was neat. The camp staff had arranged with the lock worker for us to go through. Once in the lock, they lowered the water; we paddle out; turned around paddled back in; they filled the lock back up we paddled out and off we went.
We finished up, put all the canoe stuff away and off he ran with the rest of the class. And at that point, I didn’t really think much about it, other than it was nice just to have him really enjoy himself and not this constant pent-up energy; ready to burst forth at any moment.
Later in the evening, the staff opened the gift/snack shop so the kids could buy chips, pop, souvenirs etc.
Sorry, it’s taken us a while, but this is the point of the story.
I was sitting in a chair somewhere nearby when I see my little friend approaching with his arms full of chips, chocolate bars and a couple of cans of pop.
He stopped in front of me and drops a load of stuff in my lap.
I asked him, “What’s all this?”
He said, “This is for you. I wanted to say thank you and do something for you. You took me out this afternoon when none of the other kids would have me in their groups. You showed me some neat things; I learned all kinds of neat stuff; I’ve never really been in a camp or this much outdoors before; we paddled places where the other kids didn’t; I had never been in a canoe before; no one ever did anything like what you did for me this afternoon; it was really fun”
And that was it.
I wish I could say for the last few weeks of school he was a changed kid – not really.
But, this is what he did show me.
After he gave me the stuff, it caused me to sit back and think a bit. Here’s what I saw.
This little fella just needed a place to shine; to be himself. A place where he didn’t need to compete with everyone else. He needed a place where he didn’t need to try to fit in; he just fit in outdoors in the camp.
At meal times, he was the one who made sure everyone at his table had plenty to eat; he was the one who rushed to get the bowls of food from the kitchen; he was the one who would always take the empty bowls back; make sure the table was clean.
He always would be hanging off the outdoor education staff’s every word and a bit of instruction.
This little fella showed me he had the heart the size of a beach ball. He just needed the place to be himself.
A spot where nobody really knew him. A place that didn’t care too much about his past or current issues. A place that was only interested in the now and the future.
A canoe, some water and an afternoon in the outdoors gave him the chance to be who he really. was.
I think that:
- a canoe can’t make a preconceived judgment about us
- neither can the water
- and neither can the outdoors
You see, the outdoors isn’t like us.
The outdoors doesn’t pre-judge and stick us into a slot because we got some issues to deal with.
The outdoors doesn’t really care so much about your behaviour issues or that maybe you have a diagnosis that causes a bit of grief.
Nope, the outdoors only cares that you’re outdoors. It says, “Hey cool you’re here. Let’s see if we can help you. Let’s get to it.”
This kid was no different from you, me or anyone else.
He was trying to find his place in this crazy world.
- trying to fit in when dealing with some issues. Sound familiar?
- trying to cope when others had already viewed him as something else. Again, sound familiar?
- all of this wrapped up in a 10-year-old body
I guess the point of all of this is – we all need a place to shine. A place that doesn’t judge us.
For two and a half days, an outdoor camp gave that little guy a place to shine and be himself. To show his true spirit.
If you’re struggling to find your place; why not head outside?
- take a hike
- head off to a local park or provincial park and spend the day
- sign up for some outdoor activities, like a canoe lesson
- learn how to camp
- even better – take someone with you
You see, I truly believe that being outdoors, whether it be hiking, on the water or whatever will help.
It may not cure-all things, but it does cure some.
Thanks for reading!