This is a work of fiction, nothing more.
Was there ever a more powerful experience that we could provide for students from a small rural middle school, than to transport them out of their isolated existence, in the coastal mountains of NorCal, to the geographical wonder that is Yosemite? I’m here to tell you that taking a passel of middle schoolers to Yosemite, provides enough fodder for memorable tales than any other venue I can think of, outside the realm of the heart.
By the time I came on staff, it was a long established tradition that the teachers and administration of our little school, supported the practice of transporting the entire seventh grade to Yosemite, sometime late in the school year, when the weather was most likely to cooperate. September would probably have been the optimum time to go, but it took the seventh grade all year to raise the money that was required to pull off the whole venture, and June was too close to the end of the year, so May was the designated target month.
Back in the nineties, it cost about $1,500 to defray the expenditures associated with the transportation via school bus, and the entrance fees for spending the time from Monday night, to Friday morning camping in Yosemite Valley. Supplies for the 53 students and seventeen parents who accompanied us for the four nights and three days, could be covered by an additional thousand dollars, so we used to target $2,500 as the goal of our fund raising. School board policy required that all fund raising efforts take place outside of official class time, so we either conducted business during lunchtime, or in evening meetings that included parental support.
Thus it was for one memorable trip in May, that all components were in place, and we had divided students into groups of five, each piloted by one of our parent volunteers. Part of any field trip’s success depended on the dynamics between parents/teachers and students. As teachers, we asked well in advance of the actual event, which parents could commit to the excursion, and which would feel confident enough with the age bracket, to be able to serve as a guide for activities which involved the group breaking up into smaller units. This would be primarily for travel around the valley floor, taking care of logistics, or simply taking advantage of the beauty and splendor of Yosemite, to get out and investigate it even more thoroughly.
Therefore, before we left the school, we knew which students were in which groups, and which parents would not only serve as leaders, but which would be sleeping in the same-gender tents as students. This way we could avoid solving these essential logistical issues at the last minute, while attempting to organize the camp. If there were seventeen parents, we needed ten or eleven who could serve this purpose. No one was kidding anyone when it came to making this parental commitment to guiding these small groups of seventh graders around Yosemite. We did not want to place parents in an awkward position, if they were not totally comfortable with their roles. We also needed two or three exceptionally capable parents, who could be counted on to take the most challenging students under a protective wing.
We also depended on parents to toe the party line as far as the rules and regulations. Mostly we found out that parents were more than happy to allow me and my teaching partner, Mr. Morton, and Miss Garrison, the school P.E. teacher, to be the heavy weights, making and enforcing the stipulations which would allow all to best survive the experience, with a minimum of stress, and a maximum of supervision and cooperation. Miss Garrison was outgoing and fun; she had a good rapport with the students, and was an enthusiastic outdoors person.
When all participants met prior to the approaching time of the trip, we emphasized the need for us all to be on the same page, so students were not conflicted. Parents appreciated our stance, because if the kids bugged them about a particular rule that they did not like, the parent could shrug his or her shoulders, and say that the teachers called the shots. The system worked well.
A huge ongoing concern with Yosemite, was the problem of the bears. In an attempt to provide the safest environment, the park had installed metal storage bins in all of the campsites, and instructed visitors to use them. It was not an option and the rangers used to conduct personal surveys of campsites to make sure that this regulation was carried out to the letter of the law. Consequently, we brought all of the food in ice chests and transferred it to the storage bins. One ironclad rule was no food in the tents. It was a no-brainer, unless you wanted to consider the consequences of a midnight visitor to your tent, one who was not inclined to use the front entrance.
This particular trip featured a parent named Al, who had a son on the trip who did not present a discipline problem. Al was good with the boys because he had kids over to his house regularly, and he also had helped coach Little League, so he was familiar with the role of working with the age in a guiding capacity. Though Al had a little bit of the middle school mentality himself, as teachers, we figured, Who doesn’t? Therefore we relied on Al to take a couple of the heaviest male challenges under his watchful eye. Al had no problems with the assignment.
Al listened to Mr. Morton and me instruct all campers one more time, after our arrival, and then came up to the three of us teachers afterwards, and inquired, most pleasantly, if we didn’t think we were being a little dramatic with the warning on the bears. After all, what were the chances, that of the hundreds, if not thousands of campers in Yosemite, at any given time, a bear would choose our campsite to visit. Mr M. and I assured him the chances were slim, and we wanted to keep it that way. Al laughed and said sure, he agreed with us, and walked away, shaking his head in amusement. “It just seems like a dumb rule.”
All went well for the first three nights, and along came Thursday, the last night in camp. Traditionally, Thursday afternoon was set aside as free-time, depending on whether or not individual groups and students, had been cooperative and responsible during our stay. We never had significant problems with this part of the production, because it was highly desirable, to the students, and was a great motivator for good behavior. The net result was a camp of tired and ready-to-sleep kids.
It was getting close to the ten o’clock lights out time, and we were doing some last minute organizing. Students were still grouped around the big campfire, while a few straggled back and forth to the restrooms. I heard a racket over by where we had stored the fifteen or so empty ice chests. I thought it was Mr. Morton, rearranging them, and I started in that direction, only to stop in mid-stride, when the source of the noise stood up on its two hind legs, fully ten feet high. OK, not ten feet tall, but fully as tall as I am, and outweighing me by three hundred pounds.
I was about twenty feet away from an American black bear, and as unsure of my next step, as a middle school boy, suddenly finding himself face to face with the class beauty, on the edge of the dance floor, when the sickest song for dancing to in the universe, just got started by the DJ. Fortunately, before I had to decide what to do, a clamor of unbelievable proportions began, just behind me, from the direction of the table where all of the just-washed pots and pans were stacked.
Miss Garrison was creating the hullaballoo, by pounding a pair of big metal spoons on the inside of the biggest cooking pan that she could lay her hands on, and walking straight at that bear! It may as well have been an 808 drum, with the uproar she made. That bear rearranged his face in a grimace that may or may not have been a smile, as he dropped to all fours, about three and a half feet tall at the shoulder, and lumbered off in the opposite direction. I wanted to give Miss Garrison the biggest [bear] hug in the world, but figured I’d better convey my thanks in a little more professional manner.
Besides, any thoughts I had about extending a word of thanks to Miss Garrison, were brushed aside by Al, staggering up to us, with an unfamiliar ice chest. It was doubly unfamiliar, because upon opening it, and revealing the contents, we found it to be a veritable gold mine of available junk food items, including his own supply of beer, for personal consumption. It seems that Al’s tent had been thumbing its collective nose at the rule about no food or drink in the tents.
The shade of red that his face presented, was the same as that of one of Cal Fire’s brilliantly polished engines. “That rule doesn’t seem so dumb, any more,” was all he said.