Nature Is The Teacher
The fog is thick. I’m standing up high on Shovel Point, at Tettegouche State Park. The world’s largest lake is down below, but you’d never know it.
What I can see is the top of a cliff and a bunch of middle schoolers in harnesses and bright blue helmets. Students from the Friends School of Minnesota are getting ready to rappel some 70 feet, down into the fog toward shrouded Lake Superior. I shiver. It’s a dramatic setting for a daring activity. These young people are Outward Bound for the day, engaging in one of our favorite activities — rock climbing.
This program is designed to stretch comfort zones, inviting students to find their “edge” and discover personal potential.
Nature is the teacher here, and she is commanding their attention.
Students watch and learn how to tie their own knots, how to lower themselves over the basalt edge, how to control their descent with hands and feet, using the weight of their own bodies. There is steady focus, the biting of lips and squinting of eyes, but there is also laughter, maybe in the face of fear.
I can imagine the butterflies in the bellies. Students listen carefully, but they also smile and call to one another as they watch the progress of friends. Some harness up and lower themselves down just so they can cheer peers on as they climb up that 70 foot cliff.
“You got this!”
“C’mon, almost there!”
“You can do it!”
Building Community, and Confidence
Friends School started the Skipping Stones camp program 15 years ago. It’s a tradition for middle schoolers to build community, explore nature and grow confidence. Students spend five days camping in Tettegouche and one day climbing at Shovel Point. The climb with Outward Bound is always a highlight. Returning students tell me how much they look forward to this experience each year.
Amelia, at age 11, is new to this experience and is the youngest of the group. She’s just completed her very first climb.
“It went well,” she says. “It was my first time so I didn’t want to go all the way. I’m going to do it again and try to get to the bottom.” By her own approximation, she only made it five or ten feet down, but she’s ready to try again. In fact, she’s got a strategy for round two.
I’m going to do it with my eyes closed.
Amelia’s reasoning is that not being able to see the bottom will eliminate some of her nerves. The fog is doing it’s best to aid Amelia in her climb, by hiding the lake from view.
“Friends” seems to be more than just a name for Friends School students. The school is grounded in Quaker values: community building, cooperation and collaboration are all part of the day, both at school and on the cliff face. Amelia tells me how much she appreciates her friends today.
It’s scary, so it’s nice when people support you.
Amelia wants to return the favor so she attaches herself to a tether rope and heads down to be on the rock ready to provide moral support when her friend Rissa starts her rappel.
Challenge By Choice
Rissa is visibly nervous. An instructor reminds her that this experience is challenge-by-choice. She gets to decide how much challenge she wants to take on. If she feels satisfied with what she’s done so far, she can come back up anytime.
I’m not satisfied, but I’m scared.
Rissa stays where she is for a few moments contemplating her next move.
“Do you trust yourself?” her Instructor Sadie asks.
Rissa replies with a soft but determined, “Yeah.”
Amelia watches as Rissa slowly and tentatively lowers herself to meet her goal and then goes down farther.
What’s the farthest I can go again?
Then she just keeps going… all the way down. When she gets to the bottom, like magic, the fog lifts and there’s the big dazzling lake. Up top, her friends erupt by celebrating her success.
Then it’s time to come back up. Rissa takes her time. The cliff face is a puzzle for climbers to solve and it’s challenging for Rissa, but she works it out.
When Rissa makes it to the top, I ask her if she’s proud of herself. She smiles. “Yes!”
Twenty minutes later, Rissa, the girl who started the day afraid of heights, is right back in the harness. Now she wants to try the more challenging route, so she steps over the side of the cliff all over again.
I ask Friends School teacher and Skipping Stones Coordinator Steve Moe about the day.
Rock climbing is amazing for students. There are clear risks and there are so many parallels you can make to everyday life. The risks, rewards and challenges are so clear here. It’s really cool to see them put themselves in those challenges and take them on.
Steve reflects on Rissa’s climbs. “She’s a perfect example of this. Watching her acknowledge her fear and push through it, that is the highlight of my day.”
I couldn’t agree more.
To put your students on course for challenge and confidence, reach out to email@example.com or (651) 968-3449.