Nervous energy vibrates through the woods as seventh graders take in their first glimpse of Camp Caribou’s legendary “aquazip.” The lake stretches out at our feet, while above us, tall pines filter the afternoon sunlight. Affixed to one of those trees is a platform from which each member of the class will eventually leap en route to completing this rite of passage. Before the thrilling ride down the zip line and making a spectacular splash landing in the water, though, there’s the matter of getting to that platform. Doing so requires first ascending a long ladder (which has an unsettling tendency to bounce and wiggle) and then the rungs built into the tree itself—barely large enough to accommodate growing feet. Past those steps, there’s the awkward moment of stepping onto the platform (which slopes disconcertingly away from the safety of the tree), and then the unavoidable need to . . . just . . . LEAP.
For some our students, especially those who’ve spent time at summer camp, the aquazip is an easy, breezy afternoon activity. For many, though, it is challenge, and for a few it is knee-knockingly terrifying.
As we all assemble under the trees, nerves present themselves in different ways. Some students suddenly get quiet, their eyes darting back and forth between the platform and the lake. For others, the anxiety bubbles out, like the girl who hasn’t stopped talking since we arrived 20 minutes ago (“I think I talk a lot when I’m nervous,” she says). A small group of boys has retreated to the relative safety of a nearby bench, deflecting any suggestion that they might be hesitating. “We’re just waiting for a harness,” they explain. That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.
We’re at this glorious Maine camp on day two of our annual orientation trip, and it seems, like the Army used to claim, that we’ve done more before 9:00 am than most people do all day. Our time has been filled with team-building activities, cheers, small-group discussions, basketball, racquetball, and a game I’ve discovered this year called “gaga ball.” We’ve been busy, and this busy-ness has been firmly guided by Brookwood’s Mission in Practice, which reads, in part, “I take responsibility for myself, the care of others, and the environment.” Trip leader Mike Wellington, in his inimitable and captivating style, reminded students of that statement yesterday, and we reinforced it throughout the trip: students have leaped to their feet to help clean up after mealtimes, and they have thought deeply about the film Darius Goes West, which showcases a remarkable group of young men taking responsibility for the care of their wheelchair-bound friend suffering from muscular dystrophy.
Now, on day two, huddled below the aquazip platform, we see kids again take responsibility for each other’s care. Among the more confident students, there is no trace of gloating. Instead, we see support—a hug, a high five, a quiet word of encouragement, a longer discussion about the mechanics of the aquazip and the workings of the belaying system. Bit by bit, nerves are soothed, courage is gathered, and the community tightens. By day’s end, all 50 of our seventh graders will have completed the aquazip, and each will go on to attempt similarly challenging high-ropes elements the next morning.
By the evening’s crackling campfire all students share a moment in which someone in the community took responsibility on this trip, and everyone articulates a concrete goal for taking responsibility when they return to school (these run the gamut from stepping up to clean lunch tables to vowing to speak, even when that speech is unpopular).
The bus ride home finds many of us nodding off, but it also finds us happy and accomplished, flush with the support of friendships and firmly grounded in and cognizant of Brookwood’s values. To our kids, still free of homework and class binders, it may feel as if school has not yet begun; we teachers know, though, that the school year is now well under way.
– Kent Lenci
Grade 7 History Teacher