Mike, an 18 year old senior, who listened to heavy metal, spent at least 3 hours a night playing video games, didn’t have enough confidence to apply for a job, received special education services and up until this point, spent his entire 18 years in an urban environment. Imagine how Mike felt when he learned to satisfy his graduation requirements he must spend a week with his peers on a Voyageur Outward Bound School canoeing expedition in the wilderness; to Mike the middle of nowhere.
Mike and his peers went on a seven-day canoe expedition in the fall of their senior year. It was a tradition at our Charter High School. The faculty knew the senior year was a year to prepare our students for life beyond high school. They needed a final challenge. They needed to understand they could work through challenge by looking adversity in the face and say, “I got this.” They needed to understand the power of being disconnected from electronics and instead understand the power of being connected to each other and nature.
Before Mike left he couldn’t imagine being without the technology that plugged music into his head. You see it was his way of tuning everything out, whether his own thoughts or the world around him. As their teacher I had the fortunate opportunity to go and pick the students up from their experience and return them to the comfort of their urban life. This meant I was able to hear the real stories of their experience, before they had to step back into their “cool kid” mask.
As I drove north to pick the students up I was anticipating what I would hear and witness. I knew my first glance of them would tell me everything I needed to know. So what would I see? Would I see the blank stare of disdain, the mean mug of “I can’t believe you made us do this” or would I see students laughing and interacting like they just won a championship? My heart started beating a bit faster as I turned my blinker on to turn into Duluth International Airport; the agreed upon meeting location. I took a deep breath and thought about each of the students, especially Mike.
I pulled up to baggage claim in the short yellow bus they loved so much and I was thrilled to see students interacting and laughing, celebrating at the sight of the bus. “They had a great course,” I thought to myself. They all had smiles on their faces. All together there was 6 students on the course representing different ethnicities, faith’s and socio-economic backgrounds, but none of that mattered, they were now united by the expedition they shared and completed together. The group that would graduate together.
“Well?” is all I had to say.
“It can’t believe how peaceful it was” Mike said. “It was amazing.”
The Mike I dropped off seven-days earlier was a different Mike. The new Mike discovered he could work through things that were hard and uncomfortable. He didn’t have to get angry and shut down because things were hard. Instead, he could tell himself, “I can do this, I just have to stop and think things through and ask for the help I need.” Mike discovered nature is a place of peace that can clear his mind, rather than using his music to shut the world out. Mike discovered confidence. He discovered he was capable. He discovered a supportive group of peers. Mike discovered he had to be the leader in his life, and even more importantly, that he could be the leader of his life. He tasted success. This course provided a metaphor for Mike as he figured out how to apply his newly discovered leadership skills and confidence in his urban life.
Mike graduated that spring. He completed a 400-hour internship and his graduation portfolio. He presented himself confidently to the panel of citizens grading his final graduation portfolio presentation. He not only passed, he flourished and got an A on the presentation that explained why he was ready to graduate. I never saw anyone with such a big smile and it was filled with so much pride, knowing he accomplished one of his big goals.