I am doing the A-Z challenge; today’s letter is Z for Zip-line.
Are you afraid of heights? If not, then the Ropes Course in Leggett might be just the place for you. I am not a fan of heights myself, unless it has to do with working on a rooftop, but I have been to the Ropes Course numerous times, always in the company of twenty-five or thirty of my closest friends. When it comes to building trust and unity in a classroom of kids, there is nothing like the Ropes Course anywhere (with the possible exception of Yosemite).
At our middle school we had a PE teacher (who doubled as district athletic director) who always seemed to be able to get funding to pay for class trips to the Ropes Course. Mendocino County used to provide funding for all seventh graders to go, so we had to find a way to get sixth and eighth graders there too. In most cases we used to schedule the trips for the earliest part of the year possible, so as to build cohesion into our classroom, as early as possible.
The course itself was designed from the most simple and basic of exercises, to the most challenging and sophisticated of adventurous activities imaginable. There was a very cool activity called the zip-line-two of them, actually-one at forty feet high, and one at one hundred and twenty-five feet up a humongous redwood tree. A cable was stretched from high above, to a second point at close to ground level, about three hundred feet away, allowing the rider to sail down and across at a good rate of speed, in what was presumably an exhilarating manner.
Of course, all participants had to be situated with appropriate gear, ensuring that if he or she should have some sort of cataclysmic disaster, the most that could happen would be a scare for everyone involved, but no actual injury. Allow me to assure you, the only students who were allowed to go up one hundred and twenty-five feet off the ground, were those who were imminently capable of demonstrating superior athleticism and judgment.
The bottom line is that, with one exception, these day-long trips provided students and staff alike with a plethora of activities which not only brought us closer together, but which also provided weeks of extension activities, both physical and academic. What about the one exception? It pains me to this day to think about a classic instance of the best laid plans, gone awry, at least as far as the ropes course was concerned.
It was late May, with eighth grade graduation only two weeks away, and we were coming back down to Laytonville from three days in the Redwoods, at a state-run campground called Richardson Grove. The three days had been filled with a carefully designed mixture of academia and nature, culminating with an afternoon of swimming in the Eel River. All had gone smoothly, considering there were more than fifty kids, and at least fifteen adults. The plan was to spend the last day (by now, the fourth day) at the Ropes Course, which is only a half-hour away from our home destination.
I said all had gone smoothly on the field trip; well, almost all. The only blemish had been a report back to one of the teachers, by an accompanying adult, that he had gotten quite a whiff of alcohol, while passing a student in the doorway of the camp restroom. The adult had come to Paul (my teaching partner) and me, right away, and we had taken a stroll around all of the kids, to see what we could see. Interestingly enough, there were two groups: the bigger of the two groups, naturally enough, was gathered around the pit fire, which was doing quite nicely, providing heat and light for those who so desired.
The second group, consisting of only eighth graders, was about thirty feet off from the fire, but still within reasonable distance, and they were very mellow, and doing nothing to create suspicion. Paul and I conversed for several minutes with both groups, very informally, and then went back to a second fire ring, one which had only the adults congregated about it. Paul and I prided ourselves on not treating the students as children, and gave them enough leeway to feel as though there was a modicum of trust involved in the whole process. In retrospect it is easy to see where the problem developed, but not necessarily easy to see how it could have been avoided.
Someone had brought a bottle of alcohol along, and at least seven of the kids had been indulging. It was not the first time, but it was the first time that they had successfully pulled it off, to the extent that it was the next day before the stuff hit the fan. Paul and I had talked it over, after getting the report from the adult, and since it was only minutes before lights out (ten PM) we had decided not to roust them out at that time.
The next morning, after we had arrived at the Ropes Course, Paul and I decided that to ignore the whole thing, in light of what the parent who had smelled the alcohol had told us, was to start the kind of controversy that no teacher or district wants to contend with. Did our teachers not care if the kids had been drinking? Were we lax on discipline? Had we no control over our students? Were field trips a bad thing? We split up forces, with Paul, who enthusiastically involved himself in all aspects of the course, accompanying the kids, while I became the “investigator.”
Beginning with the student from whom the whiff of alcohol had emanated, I methodically took student after student aside, crossing the little creek, and talking with each within sight of the others. One at a time. Out of earshot. My message was simple: ‘Fess up and take your lumps, and all would be well. Refuse to cop to your actions, and be found out later, you were in a world of hurt.
Consequences? Oh yes. If guilty and willing to take responsibility for your actions, you were still facing suspension (five days) and all the went along with it. However, the carrot was the graduation, only two weeks away. If you copped to it and served your suspension, you still got to be involved in walking “across the stage” and participating in the graduation dance. If you refused to cop to it, and we found out later that you were involved, you still got suspended, but you were no longer eligible for the stage and the party.
Such a sad day for all of us, but for me especially. I was good at what I did, but derived no pleasure from it. These kids meant a lot to me, and I loved them as I did my own sons. It pained me to be the bad guy in all of this mess. But someone had to do it, and I drew the short straw. Seven kids admitted their culpability, and that was the end of it. I suppose someone could have slipped through the cracks, but the net result was that the integrity of the program survived, as did the suspended kids, all of whom participated in the graduation ceremonies. It’s a tough job, being an eighth grader, with all that it entails, but everyone goes through it. Sometimes, mistakes are made. By eighth graders, you may say? Yes, as surprising as it is, by eighth graders.
But if eighth graders never made mistakes, Paul and I would have had an awfully boring job, and no one will ever associate middle school students with boredom. Sometimes it just requires a little bit of friendly persuasion, to get kids to see the right path, even if it hurts to do so.