Whenever I get a phone call from one of my children's teachers in the middle of the school day, I can't help but think, Something must be wrong.
Usually, something is. I got just such a call last December.
My son, Graham, was at Crow's Path Field School, his outdoor education program. Crow's Path invites kids 6 to 14 to spend one day each week on the Rock Point property in Burlington. There they learn wilderness skills such as animal tracking, identifying wild edibles and making fires. On Fridays, instead of sitting in his second-grade classroom, then-7-year-old Graham got to wander 100 acres of woods and beaches with an instructor and a crew of kids from the Burlington area. I envied him every time I dropped him off.
Or almost every time. It was below freezing on that Friday morning in December. I was grateful for the heat in my car when I said good-bye to Graham and drove off to my office.
Just before lunchtime, my cellphone rang. It was Teage O'Connor, the Crow's Path director. It was unusual for him to call in the middle of the day when he was typically out in the woods with the kids.
He sounded cheerful when he said hello, which initially eased my mind. Then he told me that Graham had fallen through some ice.
"Was he out on the lake?" I asked, terrified.
No, he told me. Graham had been walking on a shallow stream in the woods and misjudged the thickness of the ice. He got soaked up to his waist.
"He's fine," O'Connor assured me. "He's warming up in front of a roaring fire, wrapped in a bearskin. But could you bring him some dry pants and socks?"
Half an hour later, I was down at Rock Point with a bag of clothes. One of the female instructors emerged from the woods, rosy-cheeked, looking like a woodland sprite. She took the clothes, thanked me and disappeared back into the trees.
I was tickled by the image of Graham wrapped in a bearskin, but for a brief instant before I drove away, I wondered, Is this safe?
It wasn't the first time I had asked myself that question.
My partner, Ann-Elise, and I believe in experiential education. Growing up, I climbed every tree and hit every trail I could; Ann-Elise lived out of a bus in the Sonoran Desert one semester in college. We love our kids' public school, but we also want them to spend time learning outdoors.
We heard about Crow's Path from another Winooski parent and enthusiastically signed Graham up. But I was nervous about it, and that surprised me.
In advance of the first day, we received a list of field-school supplies. It included a hunting knife. We didn't have one, so we decided to buy one from Crow's Path. But the ones they had for sale were bigger — much bigger — than I'd imagined.
I bought one anyway. O'Connor hung onto it and assured us that Graham would only use it while supervised, after he learned knife safety.
A week later, Graham started coming home with wooden weapons. "Check out this blow gun we made from Japanese knotweed," he crowed when I picked him up. That was followed by a dagger, a spear, a sword and a shield.
One of the instructors made our normally shy son some armor from pieces of bark. They posted a photo of him wearing it on the school blog. He was beaming.
In February, a big snowstorm closed JFK Elementary, but Field School was defiantly in session. When I dropped Graham off, he hopped out of the car and started throwing snow with the rest of the kids. Would he be OK out there in the cold all day? I wondered.
He was fine.
At the parent-student potluck at the end of the school year, an instructor named Mo explained that on that February snow day, students had initially gone searching for ways to create and learn about avalanches. Instead, they'd ended up making a huge pile of snow and the kids and two instructors had taken turns jumping into it from a ledge above. It had been a little scary, he said, but also exhilarating.
That's what Crow's Path does, Mo told us: It makes it safe for kids to leap off the ledge.
Graham was with Mo's group, but he didn't jump. "I thought I would help make the pile instead," he said. Still, he told us he had a great time.
Maybe he'll take the plunge this year. At Graham's request, we signed him up for Crow's Path again. He's become more outgoing and confident since last fall. He even spent the night by himself in his own tent during the overnight Crow's Path campout at the end of the semester.
And I'm now more comfortable with his wilderness skills. Over the summer, he carved lots of marshmallow-roasting sticks for our fire pit. In fact, he's gotten so good with the knife that a few weeks ago we bought him a hatchet.