A New Student

The instructor of a class may easily learn more from the students than they learn from him or her. Sharing the growth experience in this way can result in more effective learning for both parties. In my first true role as a youth instructor, I discovered a side of myself that was altogether unfamiliar and exciting. Throughout this process of discovery, which is still happening as I write this, I made a few mistakes and a few interesting breakthroughs. I will relate those experiences to you here.

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We gain a few thousand feet over the course of the first six-mile day. We break often, eat gorp and bars, chat with the kids about all sorts of things. They are intelligent, confident and easygoing. Will loves football. Ethan loves soccer. Nico loves to come up with witty insults. Josaint wants to know about mountaineering and climbing. The conversation flows as naturally as uphill steps.

I feel a distinct joy being around young people. Their ideas and input are fresh, their complaints unfamiliar, their passions unrealized and unrefined. Time passes quickly between Subaru and Happy Lake. By lunchtime we are well over half way. The pace is relaxed, but some of the kids carry very heavy packs. Ethan has enough food to feed everyone for the duration of the trip. Freya and I help him lighten the load by taking handfuls of gorp and slices of summer sausage. We swat mosquitoes with our baseball caps while we eat and we barely notice this small nuisance.

But the mosquitoes get worse. When we reach Happy Lake it becomes apparent that we must either be swimming, moving, or completely covered in impenetrable clothing. Otherwise, we’re dinner.

The students are surprisingly resilient and care free; at least some of them. Will is still wearing shorts and a t-shirt. His calves and biceps are covered in little red dots. He doesn’t seem to care. After carrying a rod-and-reel all day, he is focused on catching a trout for dinner. He is unphased by the tiny vampires crawling all over him. Nico however, is affected hugely by the few bites he gets. His eyebrows swell up alarmingly fast. It is unnerving how puffy and red his face becomes.

Smartly, Freya has brought a head-net along and gives it to Nico. I have some Benedryl in my medical kit and I offer it to him, but he doesn’t accept, preferring to avoid medication as much as possible. We all keep a close eye on him and he seems to be doing alright, until the twilight comes and we are hidden in our tents, trying to sleep.

I hear his voice from across the campsite calling my name.
“Yeah bud? What’s up?” I respond.
“Do you think I could get some of that medicine? My eyes are swelling up so big that I can’t even see,” says Nico.

In this moment I realize something. Throughout the day today, and on the last trip with these young men, I felt more like a friend who was taking them hiking than like a teacher or guide who was looking out for their safety. Now, it became obvious to me that I was being relied upon for certain things and that without me here, Nico would be in trouble. And, strangely enough, I actually relished the feeling of responsibility. It felt oddly rewarding to be there when someone needed me. In this case, having the right medication at the right moment was essential to our trip.

I give Nico the pink and white capsule, let him keep my full water bottle because his is empty. I don’t hear a peep from Nico the rest of the night. In the morning though, the swelling in his eyes has not reduced. I advise him to keep the head net on at all times. He expresses doubts about whether he can continue. I’m surprised to find myself saying that if he can’t do the hike today, it is no problem for me to take him back the way we came and get him home this afternoon. Perhaps he is reassured by my willingness to take care of him or perhaps he is just a resilient young man. For whatever reason, he decides to continue and as we trudge away from the lake together, ahead of everyone, I can see the swelling beginning to lessen. Maybe the endorphins help, because when we reach Boulder Lake that afternoon, his eyes are wide open and he is ready for a swim.

Ethan, Will and I swim out to a log in the middle of the lake. From this vantage we can see little trout jumping all around us. Will has a passion for fishing. He and Tyler have been talking about fishing for the entire trip. There is nothing that would make him happier than catching a fish. Will is eager to head back to shore and get a hook in the water. I’m getting cold anyway and a little relaxation sounds good.

While Nuria, Freya, Ethan, Josaint and I play cards, Will fishes. He fishes all afternoon. For hours he is sitting across the lake, casting his bobber into the water where a fish recently splashed, waiting for a bite. Eventually Tyler grabs his fly rod and joins Will. The two of them fish together for a while. And believe it or not, they actually catch something.

Will hauls in a small trout and Tyler lands a slightly bigger one. They return triumphant to where we have just finished playing cards. Will is overjoyed. It is obvious from the look in his eyes how excited he is to have caught something. Tyler explains his method for cleaning the fish and Will watches intently, copies Tyler’s work on his own fish next.

Seeing the look on Will’s face makes the entire trip worth it. Being able to share that experience and help provide it to him is a rewarding feeling. This trip was all about getting young people excited to be outdoors and in the wilderness. In the moment that Will feels that wobbly pull on the end of his line, the three-day hike becomes a complete success.

Everyone hovers around the stove as we cook the fish whole, pick meat off the bones, and taste the flavor of patience and wild water. For me, however, the flavor of this evening is made slightly bitter by something that wallows in my conscience. It happened during the card game.

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Nuria accidentally broke the rules by playing a card that she was not allowed to play. Nobody noticed until much later in the hand. It was her first time playing the game and the mistake was completely innocent, but it did significantly alter the outcome of the hand and the game. Now, I am an avid card player and I am used to playing with people that are rather serious players as well, so when someone pointed out Nuria’s mistake I assumed we would just replay the hand. Therefore, I was shocked when everyone else agreed that we should just continue the game as if nothing had happened. I did not want to openly disagree with the group, so I held my tongue, but I suddenly felt that I was in a very bad mood and this became obvious to all the other players.

In retrospect, I realize that it must have looked like I was angry because I had lost the hand as a result of the misplay. For the rest of the game, I was almost silent, except for making snide remarks towards Nuria and discrediting the validity of the game entirely. My actions and demeanor were so obviously foul that I believe I offended everyone and set a horrible example for the two young men who were playing with us. It didn’t help that Nuria, noticing my annoyance with the whole situation, continued to bring up the fact that I was being a sore loser, a poor sport. This only made me angrier because my negative emotions were budding from the fact that the entire game felt like a farce, not from the fact that I was losing. Losing had nothing to do with it, at least not in my mind. I was so taken aback by the decision not to replay the hand that it was impossible for me to get over it. I felt like the entire game was pointless.

I tried to conceal or ignore these emotions at first, but my annoyance was inevitably obvious. Being one of the heretofore solid leaders of the group, my rash actions had, I think, an uncharacteristically strong impression on the students. This is something that I wholeheartedly regret, and in regretting it I luckily have the opportunity to learn from it.

It was less important to teach the kids how to play the game right, than it was to teach them how to play the game with joy. I may have a hang-up about playing games by the book, but that shouldn’t mean the boys should have that same hang-up. As long as they enjoy playing, that is the most important thing. Unfortunately, I may have ruined that enjoyment. Still, I learned a lesson worth remembering and I am glad to have become the student, even for a moment.

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We throw the spotless fish bones into the lake. Darkness signals sleep. Night wraps its gloved fingers around our tired limbs, drags us into the depths of solitary dreams.

I awake to Tyler’s yelling.
“Will! Get up. It’s 6am and you wanted to fish before we leave,” I hear Tyler saying.
“Will!”
The night before, Will had asked Tyler to wake him at 6am so he could go fishing before we spent the last day hiking back to the car.
“Will!!”
Annoyed, Tyler gets up and stumbles over towards Will’s tent.
“Will, get up!” he screams again.

There is no response, so Tyler opens Will’s door and peers into the tent. It is empty. Will is already at the edge of the lake. He has been there for half an hour. He sits patiently on a moist log, dragging his bobber through the green water with small jerks, replicating an insect’s motions. Once the bobber is a few inches from the tip of his fishing pole, he hoists it into the air, cocks it back, and flings it, again and again, into the heart of the Olympics.

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