Tales of a Sixth Grade Something - How I found myself at Outdoor School
When I was in the sixth grade I went to Outdoor School. But before I went, I had to come to grips with what Outdoor School was. As someone who had never been to summer camp and had only been on a handful of camping trips with the family, I was completely in the dark as to what it was like to sleep in a cabin and spend most of your time outside. My teacher explained that “we would be spending a week away from school in the forest” learning about “science and nature” and some other junk about singing and super fun good times. I think she called it some “grand adventure” or something like that. But what in the world did that mean? When you're a naive 12-year-old, as I was at the time, you need some things explained to you in vivid detail. Actually, you need practically everything explained to you in vivid detail. My teacher continued about good food (which, actually, was pretty interesting to me) and field games (which, actually wasn't very interesting to me), but I just didn't understand what she was trying to convey. I wasn't picking up what she was putting down. I just didn't get what this “grand adventure” was all about.
That is until I talked to my mom. You see, if you grew up in the greater Portland metropolitan area in the past 40 years, when you reached the sixth grade you got to go to Outdoor School. My mom was one of those students and by my math she was in the sixth grade around 1974 (sorry mom for letting the cat out of the bag). When I innocently told my mom one day after school that I was going to Outdoor School, something happened to her. She began to talk to me at length about when she was at Outdoor School. You see, my mom isn't what I would call a chatterbox, at least with me. Don't get me wrong, she can definitely hold a conversation just fine and is just as opinionated as the next person, it's just I don't recall from my youth many long conversations or big life lessons from her. The wisdom she imparted to me cae definitely came in the form of some high-quality role modeling. However, when I mentioned Outdoor School I got to meet my mom's alter ego: the Blabberer. At the mere mention of Outdoor School she started gushing about her experience there when she was in the sixth grade. She talked about the long hikes and how pretty the forest was and the food and the cabins and the river and the stars. The most intriguing part, at least for me, were the hobo stoves. For those who've never heard of it, a hobo stove is something kids (and presumably hobos) use to cook their own food in the halcyon days before the invention/discovery of salmonella. It consists of an open #10 tin can (think family-size Campbell's soup) turned over as your grilling surface with a used tuna can stuffed with a paraffin-wax-soaked wad of cotton or fabric as your heating element. To construct these do-it-yourself culinary wonder stoves, students were given a pair of tin snips and told to go to town while the on-site nurse was, presumably, locked in her office, told to turn a blind eye and keep the gauze handy. The fires were then lit and each student was given a gob of raw hamburger. My mom said she smashed her burger down onto her makeshift grill and cooked it to a perfect and succulent gray, the preferred level of doneness for the amateur master chef. And I guess there is something to say about 12-year-olds getting to cook for themselves. My mom said it was the best hamburger she ever had.
And that is one of the great things about living where we live and being who we are. We have Outdoor School. And we get to pass it on to the kids who live here, too. In my eyes, Outdoor School is quintessentially Oregon. It allows us to impart our collective love of this place and the natural wonders that we are blessed to have in our region. Through Outdoor School we are able to, as a community, teach our youth that this place is special and that for this place to survive, we must take care of it. That message has a lasting effect. My mom got to share her enthusiasm, her memories, her joy of that time of her life with me. Through her experience I was turned from a skeptic to an appreciator, from a confused and uninformed little boy to a, well, less confused and slightly more informed little boy. But I fed off of that excitement I felt in mother's words. I wanted to go to Outdoor School.
But I have to admit, a big part of that was because I didn't have to do homework for a whole week. And so that I could build that hobo stove and play with fire.
Alas, by the time I arrived I arrived for my week of Outdoor School, salmonella had been invented/discovered (thanks a lot, Karl Eberth, I looked it up) and hobo stoves were a thing of the past (along with the term “hobo,” now that I think about it). And of course that fact didn't stop my class and me from heading out to Camp Howard Outdoor School in Sandy, Oregon. We loaded the bus back at school for the long ride out Highway 26 and I said my goodbyes to the family. As the bus rumbled away from Clear Creek Middle School in Gresham, I felt a bit of anticipation, which eventually lead to apprehension, which eventually lead to anxiety, which, if it kept progressing, would inevitably lead to antacid. I can't recall a time before this where I had felt this mix of emotions. On that long drive out, I remember staring out the window and thinking, “This isn't right, I shouldn't be here” and, “Why did I drink so much Mountain Dew?” I remember feeling happy to be leaving but scared to death to arrive.
And I think a lot of that had to do with where I was at my station in life. I was in flux. Looking back I think I didn't know where I fit in in my world, in my school, even in my family. At school I wasn't popular, nor was I an outcast. I was just kind of there. At home, sure I was the big brother, but my brother and I were so close in age that it didn't seem to mean much other than my birthday was in February and my brother's was in November. In a sense, I didn't feel like I really stood out; I didn't feel like I had a place. I didn't feel right. But as soon as that yellow bus carrying my classmates and me rolled up the gravel driveway to Howard, all of that began to change. As the staff sang us in at the top of their lungs (and terribly off key I might add) I felt that this place was right. That, and I felt some pressure to take care of the Mountain Dew situation.
One of the first ways that you begin to feel at home at Outdoor School is you are handed a name tag and are instantly no longer a stranger. This two-inch round of cedar or oak or whatever the staff can rustle from the forest floor is given the ingenious name of “wood cookie.” They dangle from the neck of child and adult alike for every moment of your week at Outdoor School, tracking your every move and activity through the accumulation of beads, trinkets, stickers, other accoutrements and most likely a little stray toothpaste spittle. I still have my wood cookie from the sixth grade, tucked away in a box in my closet. After a recent move I rediscovered it and found each bead I acquired for the four field studies I learned about: water, animals, soil and plants. I found a sticker I earned for going on the “burly” hike to a rock quarry on soil field study. I found a stamp of a $100 bill plastered on the back for no reason other than it looks pretty cool.
But even more important, I found signatures covering every bare centimeter of my wood cookie from the people who made that week happen for me and my friends; the most important people in the world to me at that very moment of my life. I found the names of staff like Ocean, Cub and Sun Bear. And student leaders like Moose and Water Daug (this was definitely before the days of spell check). Student leaders are the hidden treasure of Outdoor School. You go there thinking that you are going to spend six long days in the woods getting rained on, eating beans and tack bread, covered in mud and hating every minute of it. But when you get there you meet these shining gems of people, high schoolers that you get to hang out with for entire week. To impressionable sixth graders they are god-like in their ability to play games with you at the drop of a hat, sing ridiculous songs at all times of the day, and just in their sheer coolness. To students, they are the ultimate in awesome. The title “student leader” is a perfect term. They are students themselves who lead students. They have gone by many titles over the years, from Junior Counselors to “Hey You” to a million other names. A more appropriate term may be hero. My Student leader was named Timmorn.
I remember him pretty distinctly in that he was pretty indistinct. He was just a regular guy. He was funny and spontaneous and a goof ball. We spent some of our time in Antelope cabin playing the magic stick game and talking about building a fire in the old, ominous wood stove that sat in the middle of the cabin, which obviously hadn't been used within a decade but still didn't stop us from pestering him to light a fire. I remember planning and practicing our skit that we performed at one of the evening campfire programs. Skits were to be nature-themed, explaining why things in the forest were the way they were. Some skits were about how Douglas-fir cones got their shape and how the rivers came to be. Ours was entitled “How the Skunk Got His Stink.” In it, the skunk and all the other animals in the forest are at a dance where skunk meets his soul mate, a very attractive lady squirrel, played by yours truly. After a shotgun wedding, we find that the honeymoon period didn't last long for the two as skunk begins to spend his time in front of the TV watching football and refusing to shower while squirrel nags him incessantly. And that is how the skunk got its stink. Just thinking back on that moment I can't believe that I was actually there, on stage, in front of a huge group of people, pretending to be a lady squirrel. Not only had the idea of performing for people never really occurred to me, but the act of performing for people scared me to death. But the safety of Outdoor School inspired me to try. I felt safe to be a dork and safe to be on stage. The love of that community made it a safe place for me to be a lady squirrel and walk away a better man for it.
While that skit and experience was a great moment for me as I was able to come out of my shell some, what I remember most about living with my counselor and cabin mates was spending approximately the entire week writing a full parody rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, complete with group air guitar solos just like in the recently released Wayne's World, that we did as our cabin call at one of the final campfires. It was long, it was ridiculous, it was obnoxious and it is one of the fondest memories I have. Timmorn made this happen. He made us work together. He made us bond. He made us love this song. We were all so into the song that when we got to do it in front of the whole camp none of us realized how alienated the crowd was. Didn't matter. We were having the time of our lives. Their tepid applause as we concluded felt like thunder in our proud hearts. I can't thank him enough for making that happen.
But enough of the song and dance routine; they don't call it Outdoor School for nothing. Field studies are the bread and butter of Outdoor School. The outdoor classroom. Teaching and learning outside where the science actually happens right in front of you is a pretty incredible experience when you think about it. The hands-on approach it so vital to the success of the program. I remember on water field study we were able to transform ourselves into the animals we were studying, thinking like as a salmon would as we tried to survive in the salmon life cycle game and designing the perfect aquatic habitat for the “King Crawdad.” My class was able to take a day hike to an old rock quarry and investigate the many different layers of outcropping. As our days in the field progressed, so did our understanding of how the world around us worked and really, our place in it. Outdoor School is the first place I can recall where I really felt an appreciation for the natural world that has never left me and continues to grow.
I can really sum up my Outdoor School experience and the positive impact it had on me to one singular day. And it was one of the worst days of my life. One evening as we were lining up for dinner outside the dining hall I was selected to be a host. The hosts were the ones in charge of serving the food and beverage at the table. They were the table generals, making sure everyone was following their table manners like “Mable, Mable strong and able, keep your elbows off the table” and “Never break up a friendship (keep the salt and pepper together).” As the host, you were the authority and that power appealed to me. Nothing's scarier than a power-hungry 12-year-old. I was psyched. That is, until I sat down. You see, at this time in my life I used tp get pretty severe migraine headaches and as soon as I entered the dining hall one came down on me with a fury. I also have a habit of not listening to what my body is telling me. Well, it's more like I'm listening but I don't believe what my body is telling me. I've definitely destroyed a few hallways just shy of the bathroom as I have wasted precious time trying to talk myself out of being sick, saying things like “It's not not the flu, it's just a cold” and “Are 10 hot dogs my limit, or was it nine?” It's like I'm too shy to even talk to my body even. Or, I'm just an idiot. So, as I sat there at the head of the cafeteria-style table, nibbling on a dinner roll here, taking small sips of water there, the migraine came at me like a ton of bricks and I began fading, fading, fading...
Until BAM! Projectile vomit across the length of the table. Everyone unfortunate enough to be at the table simultaneously shot back on their seat as if an A-bomb had been dropped and they were the human mushroom cloud, leaving a crater of half-eaten mashed potatoes and despair. I was rushed off to the cabin area for a shower and a change of clothes. And when I checked in with the nurse, she asked me all the questions you would expect to be asked after an episode like that, things like “Are you okay?” and “How do you feel?” And my response was that I was fine, because I was experiencing that post-puke euphoria, you know, where you feel like a million bucks right after you throw up. So I told her I felt great (which I did), that I didn't know why I puked (which I didn't) and that I was fine to go back to my class meeting (which was a bad idea). So I was sent off to meet my teacher and class for our evening meeting. I sat down, took out my notebook and within five or so minutes the migraine returned. What didn't return (or was never there to begin with) was my ability to recognize that I should probably get myself to an appropriate place as I began fading, fading, fading...
Until BAM! Vomit all over my lap and the floor at my feet. At least this time I must have had the good sense to avoid others as I was the only one immediately affected by the direct stream of my puke this time around. Again, I was rushed out of the room and back to the cabin area for a shower and a change of clothes. And luckily this time when I met with the nurse I decided to mention to her that I had a bit of a headache. I was given some ibuprofen and the million-bucks feeling never left. I remember the nurse even checking in with me at campfire that night and shooing her away because I was having so much fun and could not be interrupted by meaningless conversations about the current state of my personal health.
Now, I tell you this exceedingly disgusting and slightly embarrassing story (or is it slightly disgusting and exceedingly embarrassing?), because on the packing list they tell you to bring two pairs of jeans because under normal circumstances, that's all you'll need. Well, I apparently am the opposite of normal circumstances as I burned through both pairs of jeans I brought in approximately one hour's time. For the rest of the week I was left with but one option of appropriate clothing: a bright red pair of sweatpants with the words “Lightning Bolt” down the side that my mother packed as either an extra warm layer for the cold nights or a cruel joke at my expense and an instant death knell to my already unlikely chances for popularity. I think it was both. They were gaudy, ugly and pretty comfortable, to be honest. And I hated them.
But those sweatpants represent the beauty of Outdoor School and the glory of the community it creates. I should have been an outcast after that night. I could have easily been pegged as “Puke-asaurus Rex,” “Vomit-Tron” or “That dork in the Lightning Bolt sweatpants that puked all over the place that one night.” If this had happened at my regular school I would have been mocked and made fun of, and honestly, rightfully so. I could definitely see myself giving a hard time to someone else in the same position. The cruelty of middle school would have swallowed me whole and spit me out like the half-digested pieces of roll that I myself had ejected from my body at the beginning of this story. The teasing and taunting I assume would have been headed my way would have been much to bear.
But not at Outdoor School. I was treated with kindness and humility from my peers unlike anything I knew they were capable of. I wasn't mocked or teased. I wasn't hated on or made fun of. I wasn't anything. I just was. I was home and I was part of something great.
And this is where I know I was in a good place, the right place. I was able to find myself at Outdoor School. I was able to learn and play, often at the same time. I was able to sing like I didn't need the money and dance, dance, dance like no one was watching. I was able work and live and survive with my cabin and leaders, some of the most important people to me then. Outdoor School in the sixth grade made many things clearer to me, the most important of which was that I was capable and that I was going to be okay. Before I came to Outdoor School I was unsure of who I was and felt like I didn't belong and that I just simply existed. And that's okay. I didn't need to be anything else than who I was. I began to really like who I was because of Outdoor School and I am so grateful for the perspective and confidence that week-long community was able to impart on me.
Being 12 years old is one of the roughest times in a person's life. This is due to the many changes that happen to our bodies and internal chemistry at this time (let's all acknowledge this and move on: puberty is a horror we've all dealt with and it's over, so there). But that transition from child to adult is the perfect time for something like Outdoor School. It provides the impetus for us to take control of our lives at a time when everything seems out of control. It forces you (in a good way) to discover what it takes to be a citizen, to be a part of something bigger than yourself. I drove up to Outdoor School on that yellow bus a little scared and unaware of who I was and what I could be. And judging by all the tears streaming down the faces of my classmates as that same yellow bus took us home at the end of our week, I knew I was leaving something special behind me. It was at this place I was able find myself, a part of a community. A good place. The right place.
But while Outdoor School creates in my eyes perfect little one-week communities, it is a part of our larger community here in the Portland area. Anytime I bring up in conversation that I worked at Outdoor School, I notice a change in people's voices, in their demeanor. There is a distinct joyous tone that shines through them as they begin to share their stories of their own Student Leader Roadrunner or the incredible guitar playing at campfire by Grizzly and Stretch or that one time Michelle McGillicutty got a little too close to the river looking at that crawdad. I love hearing all of their stories, as a smile begins to emerge on their faces. And when people say things like they didn't grow up here and are unfamiliar with Outdoor School, I get the pleasure of sharing my joy with them as I introduce them to a part of their community they were unaware of. And a smile usually begins to emerge on their faces, too. Outdoor School is the type of thing that makes Portland. It makes us who we are. And while budgets for education are dwindling, we cannot let this quintessential part of who we are dwindle as well. I urge you to dig out your old wood cookie, dust it off. Try to remember who you were before your week at Outdoor School and who you became while you were there. Think of what you created during that week. I still have mine and come across it every now and then. Luckily, I can't seem to find those sweatpants.