Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Trust and the Glowing Maggot of Doom

As many of you already know, when I was much younger and much less decrepit, I worked at an Environmental Education school in Maine. It was a very cool job, perfect for a just-out-of-college-trying-to-decide-what-to-do-with-the-rest-of-my-life girl. I lived in a tent most of the time, not because I had to but because, particularly at that time of my life, I had some pretty strong hermit tendencies. Besides usually being cold, damp, and possibly a little moldy, it was a good place for me to be. And it paid me $75 a week.

Most of the people who worked there were a little weird; Birkenstocks and wool socks even in the winter and an unnatural obsession with Dr. Bronner’s Organic Peppermint Soap, even for tooth brush related activities, so I fit in pretty well.

I spent most of my days teaching nature and group challenges to school kids. In many of the challenges, the group had to accomplish a complex physical and mental task based on the 4 C’s: cooperation, confidence, communication, and compassion, and the big T: trust, in order to escape from the dreaded Glowing Maggot of Doom. The Glowing Maggot is an imaginary but very real relic from the nearby Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. (Imagine former President Bush and Homer Simpson saying, “Nuc-u-lar.”) Maine Yankee was so close that we had a Geiger counter constantly clicking in the office, and during summer camp, we always had a couple of school busses on site in case we had to evacuate in an emergency. Luckily, we never did. I think that the plant has shut down now, and rumor has it that it is now a kitty litter factory.

But back to trust and the glowing maggot. In order for our groups to have a “positive learning experience,” we had to learn to trust each other. That was pretty tough. The groups were mostly elementary and middle schoolers, usually randomly mixed and placed in groups of about ten. We would camp out, rain or shine, cook all of our food over a campfire, explore forests, fields and salt marshes, rock climb, barn climb (an indoor high ropes course), wall climb, and as a culmination of a week of progressively challenging tasks, conquer the gulch. The gulch was about 100 feet across and fifty feet deep, a coastline chasm full of ocean at high tide and mud at low. We had a few ropes, a steel ring, a helmet, harness, and some other safety equipment, and a couple of carabineers. It was, in many ways, the ultimate test of trust. We had to trust that the group would use the skills they had learned throughout the week to solve the puzzle and figure out how to get the ropes across the gulch and fastened securely, get the entire group across, and retrieve the ropes, all while trying to escape from the glowing maggot of doom. We had to trust that the ropes would hold, and that we would be able to pull ourselves across the gulch while suspended from the elephant rope. The elephant rope, as I remember, was about two inches thick and was supposed to be strong enough to support the weight of ten dancing elephants. We had to trust that if we did not have the strength or the courage to pull ourselves across, the group would help with their muscles and their words of encouragement. But mostly we had to trust that we would be accepted for all of our strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies, that we would be supported, physically and emotionally, when we needed it. We had to trust that we would not be teased, ridiculed, or excluded.

For me, and for many of the kids I worked with, this was not easy. Trusting other people, particularly people who were acquaintances rather than friends, was probably even scarier than the glowing maggot of doom. But during the week, my job was to help them learn to trust each other. We ate together, often cubes of congealed spaghetti if the cook crew forgot to stir the noodles. We worked together to build fires in the rain, to stay warn and dry, to find our way with a map and compass. We talked about being afraid: afraid to try new things, afraid of heights, afraid of spiders, afraid of the dark, afraid of being teased, afraid of looking foolish. In the light of a campfire, some of the kids were able to relax a little, let down their guard, and speak from their hearts. Others weren’t there yet, but sometimes even they were able to fall backwards from the steps into the arms of the group. Sometimes they were able to ask for help, or to share their ideas, or to admit to feeling scared. On Friday afternoon, when they got back onto their bus to go home, they were always tired and always dirty. But I know that at least some of them got onto the bus a feeling little more confident, a little more secure with themselves and their abilities, a little more honest, and maybe with a few new friends. And hopefully, many of them felt a little more trust, for themselves and for each other. After all, if they could trust each other and successfully foil the glowing maggot of doom, I’m pretty sure that they can do anything.

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