Friday, February 5, 2010
In 1970 when I was five years old, I began walking across the village to the neighborhood school. An imposing, brick building built in 1885, the Union School was by far the centerpiece of my life for many years, but I was intimate with the grounds and fields behind the building in a way I wasn't with the learning intended to be happening inside it. It is, perhaps, a betrayal of my true feelings about formal education to admit that I can see the milkweed plants in the side field, the wild grapes twining up the link fence by the swing-set, the old vines clambering over the rock walls at the edge of the playing field (and what IS that ubiquitous weedy flower with the bulbous protrusion in its middle, caused by some minute wasp burying its future progeny in the stem?), more clearly than I can the hallways and classrooms of the school. But it is with even much greater clarity that I can recall the seemingly long walk through the boggy, soggy strip of woods that lay, enticingly, between home and the intended edification of the young minds spending their days entombed in stone; our early embalming.
The walk across town was, by any adult standard, short. A half-mile, at best. Down three, tree-lined, village streets we would go; gathering children at each house and block until we were a clump of girls and boys traveling loosely together, picking up the path by the railroad tracks that led straight into the woods. Once through the trees we wound our way up a small hill and across the backyard of a long suffering schoolhouse neighbor whose lawn connected with the crosswalk. Here, we would wait dutifully for the crossing guard (a bossy sixth grader) before filling the school-yard. This walk was a daily event where children and their rules were in full evidence. No adults were present or even expected; fathers were at work, mothers were at home with younger siblings and housework. This was a time, by current standards, of unbelievable freedom, a cliche. Chewing gum, linty pocket candy, marbles, bits of string, pennies, brown, paper bags with tuna sandwiches and aluminum Charlie Brown lunch boxes swinging against the legs of ten or fifteen children was the look of the day. Boys would swagger and swear in too short pants and untied shoes, girls wore skirts and dresses, threatening tattling and shrieking at whatever was being thrown; snowballs, spitwads, frogs; we all walked through town together, fresh and young. Happy to be out in the world.
Once the path through the woods was gained, the pattern of walking shifted into single-file. The path was narrow and often wet enough to require some generous adult to put down boards for us to step on. When the boards weren't yet placed, the walkers were required to use whatever dexterity and coordination were at their disposal to navigate the pools and puddles amongst the logs and rocks. Jumping from rock to log to log to rock could be treacherous and often resulted in wet boots and stockings. The vernal magic of the woods was at its most obvious in spring when the peepers began their beckoning call; hiding in and on the trees, low bushes and plants of the path. In the pools, a teeming multitude of tadpoles representing several local frog varieties fascinated us and we watched them grow and change as the season moved on. Shiny, green, Leopard frogs, huge, khaki Bullfrogs, tiny Northern Spring Peepers. All were represented here, at all stages of life. In early spring, in the North Country, snow falls fairly regularly into late April. As the tadpoles grew quiescent under a blanket of fresh, wet snow, we would wait, watching for their hind legs and endless activity to emerge. Each day contained a new observation, a fresh magic that we could stow away. Once the snow truly melted, mud season began in earnest and, as in winter, attending school now required two pair of shoes. One for the squishy, squashy, oozing brown mud that covered and filled the path to school and one for the civilized component of our day - the classroom.
Arriving at school, dripping and draining all over the floors, trailing mud, weeds, leaves and much behind us in a revealing map of our recent travels we stopped short of entering our classes. Required to hang our sodden traveling garments on small, sturdy brass hooks and place our boots; complete with Wonder Bread bag liners, on low shelves, we would don sweaters and Mary-Janes or brown or blue or black lace-ups and enter the fluorescent world of reading, math, snack-time, milk-money and chalkboards. Getting up to sharpen our pencils at the front of the room, erasing the chalkboard, emptying the garbage, using the restroom and reading Dick and Jane filled our days. Although this was an enlightened school district with "experimental" educational practices, and although there were some teachers who deeply believed in public education and tried to erase the institutional atmosphere, the penitentiary feeling was never far from the surface. Occasionally, an unusually enlightened teacher would create an atmosphere rich with possibility but never could the classroom draw us as the playground, the fields, or the walk on the path with its frogs and mud did. Even bringing nature into the classroom was more interesting than what went on academically there. Once, in first grade, Mrs. Smith brought a monarch butterfly chrysalis in for the class to observe. We waited and watched over the weeks as the celandine chrysalis darkened and dried out; readying itself for the birthing of its magical contents. The wonder and happiness of this experience very nearly redeemed Mrs. Smith for her byzantine teaching methods. In fifth grade, Mrs. Dunne suggested and followed through on the creation of a papier-mache replica of the Statue of Liberty for the bicentennial parade. She came close to erasing a year of sub-standard educational practices and utterly boring material with this project. In sixth grade, when Mr. Upham allowed us to create, produce and televise a school news program and have student-led story and poetry hour in the class living room - complete with sofas, chairs and a rug, he could be forgiven nearly anything. And still; none of this was as meaningful as the walk to and from school. The huge, thick ice daggers that hung from the eaves of the school in January. The grass-blade whistles that everyone tried to make and that I could never master. The farm that lay beyond the school-grounds that led to the town's river. None of the math, reading, spelling, history or science spoke the same incantation capable of drawing our full attention. Outside. Out. We wanted, needed, out.
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of children who do not go outside. Ever. For any reason other than to get into a vehicle which is waiting to transport them to another inside place. They do not hear or see frogs. They do not feel squishy mud or freeze their fingers and toes by getting them wet in spring precipitation. They cannot identify bugs, plants or birds. They do not risk certain death by eating the berries growing on the fence. They don't skin knees on grass. Rip bits of tongue off on a frozen flag-pole. Build elaborate snow forts and play King of the Mountain. They are, instead, in stasis. Sitting in front of the glowing tube that we have all been called to worship. Performing the simple ritual of pressing a button to create the magic of light and sound on a screen. It is a travesty which will have unimaginable consequences for those who participate.
My experiences as a very young child, of being outside; walking to school, playing, running, walking, riding my bike, watching my mother garden and rake and plant, skating and sledding and building with snow. All of these helped to create a person with deep compassion and empathy for the world around me. Not just for humans but for frogs and flowers and birds and bees and butterflies. All of the world. How can we expect this same response to our current ecological calamity if our children don't even go outside? How can a solution even be imagined by a mind that isn't connected with the sufferer in any concrete way?
Parents! A call to action! Send your children outside! It IS safe! It IS good! It IS necessary for their health and well-being. They won't die or be abducted or run-away. They can, no, they must have time to be free; to let their minds wander with the clouds and sun. To lie on their backs in the grass and contemplate. To catch snow on their tongues and learn the animals, plants and birds of their home. It is imperative for all life on this planet that we begin, now, to reconnect the union of our children with the outside world. Turn off the tube and begin.