On our way out of town, the kids rattled on about climbing trees. My friend, Barb craned her neck from the passenger seat to peer at the excitement in back of my minivan. She and I had been volunteering with this classroom of middle school kids for some time now but neither of us had ever seen them quite so animated. As I glanced in my rear view mirror, I could have sworn that I saw them actually vibrate in their seats.
Barb turned back to her map, shaking her head. The exit for Andrews Experimental Forest was coming up soon. Neither of us wanted to miss the turn. It would mean staying in the car longer than we had to. We were both at the teeth clenching stage of our patience range. Fortunately, the place was clearly marked.
As we lost sight of the river to our right, we gained a view of deep forestland to our left. The trees were getting bigger and older. The passengers of my minivan grew still. We were entering the old growths.
The kids hopped out of the car and joined their classmates under shelter at Andrew’s Experimental Forest base camp. It had a well-kept visitor’s center with friendly staff that passed out safety helmets as they introduced themselves. The energy level rose again.
The staff circled the class up and served them an engaging introduction to the lessons they would be taught in the forest. The kids eyes were wide with excitement. They were ready for adventure.
The class was separated into smaller groups and paired with an employee and a school volunteer or teacher. Barb and I stuck with our little group from the van. We didn’t want to miss the show.
Our guide walked us through the old growth. Giving hands-on lessons about forest life cycles and helping the kids identify some of the critters right under their noses. Barb and I stopped at several spots along the trail to take photos and soak in the beauty around us. We couldn’t stop long. The kids were vibrating again.
When it was our group’s turn to hit saddle up and climb the trees, I started to get a little nervous. What if they start showing off? What if they are overwhelmed with the climb and start acting up? What if they get hurt?
The staff at Andrews was used to herding cats. They gave a short but thorough safety lesson and strapped the kids into their equipment. Barb and I were assigned guard duty on the ground. We watched as our buzzing little bees shot into the trees towering 100 feet over our heads. The chatter put howler monkeys to shame.
Then it was suddenly quiet. Barb and I exchanged glances. The staff on the ground looked up and smiled. My experience as a mother had taught me that silence in kid land was a dangerous thing. Silence meant that forbidden cookies were being eaten, goldfish were being liberated onto the carpet or a god-awful haircut had just been performed.
As the group descended, the verbosity resumed. There was a different tone. They were still excited but this time it wasn’t random chatter. There was a focal point that I hadn’t noticed before.
When the kids got to the top of the forest canopy, they were instructed to maintain silence for 5 minutes. They just sat quietly in their climbing saddles and use their senses to drink in a world that they had never seen before.
When they hit the ground, they sat in a circle and described, in surprisingly poetic ways, the birds and insects, the colors and scents, the sensation of visiting a piece of the sky. The world became a bigger place with just a few tugs of rope. Silence taught them to see it. They were in awe.
As we walked back to the visitor center for lunch, wiggles crept back under their skin. They got louder and sillier. The moment had passed. Barb and I stuck our hands in our pockets and sighed. They would be vibrating again after lunch but now we knew their secret.
These kids knew there was a reward for silence. They had reveled in the alien world above their heads without words. This memory could be triggered again.
On the way home, Barb and I used this secret to our advantage. We told stories during the entire 45 minute trip back to school. The kids sat quietly as we plowed through our repertoire of Coyote stories, Celtic tales and scientific news tidbits.
I looked in the rear view mirror again – no vibrations. The peace that they found in the trees had steadied them. Barb and I smiled at each other between stories. That five minutes of silence might last a lifetime.
*Thanks to Barb Shaw for letting me use her photographs for this post.