Tuesday, July 22, 2008

One thing I learned about teenagers

... is that the speed with which they accomplish something is directly proportional to their level of investment or motivation in the task. After watching them "hike" at a pace so slow I had to take a step and then pause, shifting my weight from one foot to the other before taking the next step, I wrongly assumed that this was the speed at which they were capable of inching up an incline with a great deal of weight on their backs. Imagine my surprise when, at other times during the same trip (sometimes even on the same day), they moved up similar slopes so quickly that I had to nearly jog to keep up!

Now, perhaps this is not as unique to teenagers as I think it is. I imagine we all accomplish tasks at varying paces according to our motivation. I guess I have observed a similar phenomenon among first graders but, in general, first graders are often excited about many things, while a pivotal creed of adolescence seems to be that one should rarely display enthusiasm for those things suggested or mandated by adults. It is pretty easy, on the other hand, to find ways to make almost anything exciting to small children. (It has been suggested that the way I inspire my students to action, sometimes through dramatic and/or emotionally-charged means, is a form of manipulation, but I prefer to think of it as creative influence.)

So I learned the importance of finding motivation for our group of 8 to get things done, whether it was a 7-mile backpack over 4 peaks, a particularly long paddle, the straining of the dishwater, or the cooking of a meal. Internal motivation (what good teachers strive for -- we want children to learn, and to do the right thing, because they want to, not because they will earn a reward), as with first graders, was not always enough to keep this group moving. And the differences in their speeds -- their ability, as a group, to move either as if their feet were stuck in molasses or as if they were being pushed by a small, motorized vehicle -- were particularly dramatic, making the necessity for the right motivation even more essential. Sometimes the promise of good views, or a swim in a waterfall, were enough. Often the reminder that the farther we got today, the less distance we would have to cover tomorrow, had great power, especially when partnered with a promise that they could sleep in past 6:30 the next morning. S'mores, or other desserts such as no-bake cookies or brownies, could move mountains. I used M&Ms with some success on a particularly hard day.

To be fair, though, this group of 8 teens, between the ages of 13 and 15, worked very hard. We had some tough days, tough for the instructors, let alone for kids unaccustomed to carrying forty percent of their bodyweight on their backs and the accompanying rigors of life in the backcountry. Not knowing where you will sleep tonight, even as the afternoon begins to wane, even as you are already exhausted from hours upon hours of paddling, would cause despair, frustration, and certainly a great deal of crankiness among even the most stalwart of souls. And as a group, they often impressed me the most when the going was the toughest. (And frustrated me the most during the most mundane of tasks, such as tidying our camp or getting moving in the morning.)

It was after a particularly grueling day of paddling, followed by a three-mile portage that had to be done by first carrying packs, then hiking back, then carrying canoes (turning 3 miles into 9), that they all amazed me with their perseverance and humor in the face of adversity. As we stood in the pouring rain eating dry bagels with peanut butter for dinner, our raingear adhering to our skin with sweat, they willingly participated in a physical, mental, and spiritual check-in before heading for shelter. (The simple act of willing participation in such a check-in is, in and of itself, no small feat.) And despite the exhaustion and frustrations of the day, when I feared they might revolt because their wilderness trip was starting to look more like boot camp than summer camp, they shared insights that were reflective, humorous, and as optimistic as the situation warranted.

Our student Jake, one of the strongest of the group, said that he was wishing he felt connected to nature and glad to be in the wilderness right now, but that mostly he was feeling wet and tired. "I feel like I can keep going and do more," he confided, "but then I try and I keep getting tired out. My muscles are tiring more and more quickly and I just can't do more." Angelique, the quietest and, seemingly, least physically able of the group, said that despite the hard day, she felt happy because she loved the rain. And Chad, darling Chad, who kept all of us in stitches throughout the trip with the way he could make a play on words that brought tears to your eyes, mused, "Physically, I'm kind of tired, and mentally I'm kind of tired, but spiritually I'm feeling pretty good right now. When you do stuff that's hard like this, you learn a lot about yourself, you know." Finally, Kris, our tough girl from Boston who was on the trip against her will, spoke up and observed that we, as a group, never lost our sense of humor, even when things were really bad. "And I figure," she said, "if you don't have your sense of humor, you don't have anything." This last should probably be added as one of the most important rules of wilderness survival.

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