Once a sweeper on my soccer team, I am now the sweeper of the woods for our Girls of Summer crew, 16 summers deep. The sweeper position is the last woman back, the last line of defense before the goalkeeper, or in this case in the woods, the one who makes sure no one gets left behind. Once a Girl of Summer, always a Girl of Summer, even if they only participate one season or even just one hike in those pivotal years between seventh grade and senior year. We wonder what they will remember from their time in the woods us, and I know this group is no different. These girls do not expect to read about our conversations in the woods here on Krill’s blog page, so I will keep them general and apropos to adolescence and not to any specific conversation.
But we tell them every week that they matter– that they are strong and smart and funny and full of positive energy, even when they might be lagging behind. My fellow leader, teaching colleague, and friend, Rebecca Steeves, is also not the fastest hiker, but what we lack in speed we make up for in endurance, more specifically the ability to endure. And at the back of pack, we mostly listen to the girls who hike back there with us, sometime just for a little bit and sometimes for the entire hike. There have been a few occasions over the years, where one of two have spent their entire hiking season in the pack of the back with us, and we’ve never questioned why. Of course, in the beginning, we pair them up trying to mix ages and interests so they get to know one another better than they would have had only hiking with their bestie or the one other person who hikes her same pace.
But I’ve decided that here in the back of the pack we learn about those kids for whom school isn’t always easy– for whom socializing isn’t always fun– for whom home lives are far from simple. There are the girls who realize that this kind of team hiking isn’t for them; they prefer to go faster, even hiking solo than hiking with and around a group. That is okay. Girls of Summer isn’t for everyone. We have our gazelles, the ones practically running straight up hill hardly out of breath, but they wait for the rest knowing and understanding the importance of not getting separated as well as supporting others around us. They call out words of encouragement and shouts of glee when peaks are reached or important junctions met. This summer someone called me old and all I could do was laugh.
On our last day hike together, from the back of the pack, I realized we had gone off trail based on the spongey factor of the soil beneath our feet. We called the girls back and retraced our steps where we had missed the marker to head left down towards the river. We could in fact see the right trail ahead of us, but that isn’t always the case when we get lost. But keeping the girls together is the most important part; we can deal with getting lost together, but the idea of missing a kid in the woods is essentially terrifying.
This leads us to wondering about all the ways kids are missing or lost or struggling to cope by the time they reach us in high school. There are the kids who blow up schools, shooting students and teachers, and we wonder why it is getting harder for teachers to return to schools every August with enthusiasm for a new year. I have teacher friends who are “retiring” long before they actually have enough years in, but enough years in to know they need to do something different.
I have far more patience for the parents concerned for their kids’ interests and energy and bigger life picture than their test scores. We field emails from concerned parents about their kids’ performance and what kind of special summer program they ought to participate in. Is tutoring an option? How can they improve their test scores? There are better questions to ask, and ones which support our kids’ mental, physical and emotional health, I want to scream at them. How about you back off on the test scores? How about you wonder about why your kid doesn’t wonder any more? Do they play games? Do they dip their toes in cold rivers? Do they talk to their siblings or friends or counselors if they are not going to talk to you? Do they have friends? Do they laugh?
My English teacher friend Kristie posted an article recently about student mental health and how college won’t matter one bit if they are struggling so deeply on the inside once they are there, lacking the coping skills or support network to endure. She models for students how to read for fun, and my more “nature loving not so much a reader” son loved her class. Another English teacher friend, Denise, applied for and was granted a Rotary scholarship to pursue her masters in writing. She has written a novel, modeling writing as a teacher of writing. My other English teacher friend Jen, who completes our middle high school English department, gives me the best books to read. We are taking a class on sustaining the English teacher: how to improve student writing by encouraging students to write more while we spend less time grading. The hope is that we read and write and participate in summer PD (both professional and personal development) that will not only inspire us back in the classroom but also help us to endure the years ahead in education. Here’s the thing: we still love being English teachers, and in a world where teachers are leaving the profession (our tiny district is no exception), we need to find strength in the back of the pack.
On our last hike this summer, I fell, slipped really, off a set of rocks, injuring my knee. The girls worried we would have to call in North Woods Law or the Pemi Valley Search and Rescue. Luckily, we did not need to do so, and I was able to climb down the rocks on my own, where I’m now participating in six weeks of physical therapy so insurance will pay for my MRI for possible meniscus tear. Growing up and growing older is never easy; but these Girls of Summer, ranging from 11 to 17, are strong, bright, chatty, funny young women who carried heavy packs, pushed themselves up very steep and technical terrain, set up tents in pouring rain, learned to use camp stoves and cook dinner, chat about the vast awesomeness of our Franconia Ridge, and write their way through the Whites…laughter coming from tents (both ours and theirs) up and away from regular life is one of the best sounds I know. They, along with their adolescent counterparts who don’t hike but still endure adolescence, have so much to reach towards– and the summit is not everything. The journey with friends in the woods; the conversations and laughter and people we meet along the trail; the snacks and lessons shared– that is what we want them to remember as they build the endurance they will need in the weeks, months and years ahead.