Connecting With Students On A Maine Hiking Trail

A version of the following essay originally appeared in Middle Link, a Maine Association for Middle Level Education publication (Fall 2007, Volume 19 No. 1).  “The Way We Were” might have been a better title for this post, because today, nearly a decade later, my students, colleagues, and I take few field trips, and we certainly don’t take daily walks or monthly hikes anymore.

Tuesday, a few days before April vacation, is a Maine beauty: blue, crisp, and clear. As my colleagues and I board the school bus with 37 middle-schoolers, we marvel at our luck with the weather, with our students, and with the supportive little community where we work. This is our fifth monthly hike at Acadia National Park, and today we’ll add seven more miles to our goal of covering all 57 miles of carriage trails by the time our sixth graders finish eighth grade.

Our students scramble off the bus and zigzag into action, a kaleidoscope of whirling arms and legs. Many of these teens are fit, but at least a third of them are overweight or out of shape. Today will be a challenge for them — and for me.

Adolescents don’t hike. They soar and swerve into each other, snatch baseball caps, steal snacks, and even make plays for my working stick. Yet despite their natural exuberance, they are well-behaved and respectful of each other and other hikers.

We walk three miles, then stop for a healthy sneak at a glorious scenic vista: Thunder Hole. I gaze out over the crashing sir of the Atlantic shoreline and I still can’t believe we get to be here as part of our jobs. My colleague Pete and I integrate the hikes into our classes, but we’ve discovered these outings are valuable for reasons that extend far beyond penning nature poems or following field guides, and even beyond the obvious fitness benefits. Nowhere do we connect more with our middle school students — or each other — than when we are hiking together. We swap tales, talk music and sports, and take turns ambling with the slower walkers. Sometimes we sing silly songs. Other times we share what we’re reading or talk about our families. Occasionally the talks turn serious, but mostly we laugh and tease each other. This conversational camaraderie, which rarely happens in the formal confines of our classrooms, allows all of us to communicate and connect.

One year, as he hiked beside me, I asked the new eighth grader if he’d ever done anything like this is the South. “No, ma’am, it’s really different here,” he responded in a soft drawl, “And Miss B, you’re the weirdest teacher I’ve ever had.” I chuckled. “But it’s a good weird,” he added. In middle school parlance, this meant I was okay in his eyes and he wanted me to know it. Back at school tethered to his desk, he would not have uttered those words, but out here on a casual walk, he felt more free to speak. Later this brief connection helped us navigate some difficult terrain at school.

Nearly four decades ago my junior high school gym teacher, Miss Jones, affectionately nicknamed me Clod. She did so partly because of my given first name (Claudia), but mostly because she saw a misfire between my brain and my body, and she wanted to help me deal with it. Humor, especially sarcastic humor, doesn’t work with all kids, but Miss Jones knew me well enough to recognize it would work with me. Besides humoring me, she created a “special” class for me and a few other athletically challenged girls. We walked laps and tracked our progress, something I could do without pressure or embarrassment. Miss Jones connected with me, personalized my curriculum, and showed me how to handle my klutziness with humor, if not grace.

The day after the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series, we headed out for our monthly hike. I struggled on an uphill climb until a group of eighth grade boys raced up behind me. “Come on, Miss B,” one of them urged, “if the Red Sox can do it, so can you.” They started singing a silly cadence to keep me moving. When I stumbled on a tree root, we all laughed for a moment, and then one of the boys took my arm and gently helped me up the trail.

Today two students and I are the last to reach the bus. One boy has whined for the last two miles, complaining about his aching feet and lamenting the fact that his mother made him come. “Your mother,” I tell him, “is a wise woman.” He’s not buying it, but he sees I’m struggling, too, so he keeps shuffling one foot in front of the other. Finally the two of us straggle onto the bus. Generally the last arrivals are greeted with a few cheers, but today most of my students are happily ensconced in their seats, headphones blaring, lips yapping. I ditch my walking stick and collapse into the front seat. Pete smiles and says I’m taking the blame for our late return.

Tomorrow Pete and I will lead our students on a quick walk outside. The next day we’ll do laps in the gym or we’ll “Sweat to the Oldies” with Richard Simmons. Later, when the laughter fades and we’ve caught our breaths, we’ll stroll back to our classrooms, our hearts beating strong, and we’ll write down the poems that are dancing in our heads.

Lynn Bonsey

About Lynn Bonsey

Who knew that in my sixties, I’d be simultaneously dealing with adolescent angst, adult children, and elder care? Days, I teach middle level students to read and write. Nights and weekends, I often spend with my father and mother who live in separate facilities in separate towns. My two siblings and I collaborate to ensure our parents’ quality care, which requires patience, vigilance, and constant advocacy. In the midst of all this, I lean on my husband, a retired educator, to keep me sane and happy.