Dan Szczesny sees kids who are in awe of nature from the very start, and does all he can to ignite that passion rather than dampen it.
The spark is there, our job is to ignite it.
Today, a confession, and perhaps an insight.
I’ve been thinking lately about passion. Or perhaps more accurately, how to bring out the passion that already exists in kids. We don’t have kids of our own, yet, but we do have two part-time preteens we take care of.
I see flickers of this passion in Aaron’s eyes when he finds a YouTube video to help him learn a new song on his violin.
And of course, our fans and friends have been witness these past few years to the enormous passion that has flourished in Janelle for the outdoors and nature.
But here’s my confession. I don’t know why the passion is there to begin with. I have not a clue how those seeds of interest are planted.
As a Hike Specialist for Blue Hill Science Center and Observatory outside of Boston I have special job indeed. I have the very great honor of catching kids—second and third graders mostly—right at the crux of awareness, right at the moment when they are wide open to the world and largely unspoiled by reality. For a six-year-old in the woods, every leaf and spider and hawk is an enormous and life-changing moment in time. Those kids are wide open to anything.
In our one-mile, hour-long hike to the summit, we’ll talk about glaciers and erosion. We’ll identify trees and types of rocks. There are some who have no interest, but only a few. Most throw themselves into the mud, uninhibited and unheeding of the dirt. And should we see an actual animal on the journey, be it a deer or a caterpillar, the pure expressions of joy and wonder are a thing to behold.
But, my bet is that most kids feel that. I did when I was that age. But there’s a step in there, a missing link, that I’m most interested in. That’s much more rare.
From the moment Janelle’s boot touched that first trail, I could see the fire that raged someplace inside—a pilot light waiting to be ignited. In the presentations I give for our book, The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie, I often talk about facilitation, that my job on our continuing journey is to encourage and facilitate an interest that already burns brightly. How it got there in the first place? Well…I don’t know.
This week, I saw that again. That look. That now.
Before we begin our hikes at Blue Hill, I’ll talk to the kids about politeness on the trail, a bit of history, what we are likely to see, that sort of thing. But really I like to use this time to size up the crew. Which ones are talkative. Which ones want to be there, which don’t. What are the clicks, that sort of thing. My goal is to diffuse any problem on the trail by immediately picking one or two as my “assistants.” If the kid is a trouble maker, he’ll be near by. If he’s talkative, he can talk to me.
And every so often, I’ll spot something different. That’s when I saw a second-grader whom I’ll call Jake.
I could tell Jake was different. He wore a Patagonia fleece. He brought his own backpack. He sucked water out of his own bladder. He just stood there, in front, looking up at me. Quiet. Attentive. A fire raged so clearly behind his blue eyes that it startled me.
He became my assistant. He was smaller than most and some of the kids teased him, but he paid no attention. He focused only on me.
Part of his “job” was to “lead” his classmates to certain points on the hike, a trail sign or tree. He would do this without question, and when he reached the destination, he’d stop and spread out his arms to make sure no one went any further. When a much bigger girl repeatedly pushed through, he only rolled his eyes and shook his head, as if to say Kids, what can you do!
When the rest of his class stopped for lunch, or broke off into little groups during breaks, Jake stayed behind, close to me, taking his job seriously. He was a loner. I wanted to adopt him.
“Jake,” I whispered, “come here I want to show you something.” I sat with him on the ground in front of a sapling White Pine.
I snapped off a five-needle bunch from the tree and handed it to him. “Count the needles.”
“Five,” he said.
“Right, now how many letters in White?”
“Five.” His eyes got wide.
“Right, get it, now you know how to identify a White Pine.”
The day passed and soon we were in the parking lot, the kids piling on the bus for the long ride home. I waited for the bus to pass, but as it did I noticed Jake in a seat near the window. He turned and saw me, and held up his hand. He was still holding the five-needles. He had kept them through the day. He smiled and waved and I recognized that look.
There was fire there.
What’s the moral? The insight here is maybe there is no moral. I didn’t know Jake like I knew Janelle. But I knew that feeling of wonder and joy. I knew that well. Maybe Jake would be back, I hoped so. Maybe that day, something long and deep was planted in his imagination that would last a lifetime.
Or maybe, he just liked how the needles of a White Pine feel when you run your fingers over them. And that’s awesome as well.
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