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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Lost in the Woods

Writing about Mr. Priest last week, put me in mind of my years in NH, where I worked on a project that was devoted to teaching students and their full-time teachers in the city about the value of work, and self-reliance. The Monadnock region of NH where we were located, fostered a number of folks whose thoughts on these subjects are well known. Emerson and Thoreau both lived and camped on Mt. Monadnock and wrote about it in their journals.

For two weeks each year we took in classes from a school in New York from grades 3 through High School. We varied the time of year according to the lesson material that would be covered during those weeks and so the students would get a range experience about what it is to live and work on a farm and manage a 247 acre forest. As full-time staff and a teacher I did it all—including helping kids of every age gather, saw or chop wood to heat the buildings they lived in—some dating back to the Colonial era. I also showed them how to cook and clean, tap Sugar Maples for sap to make syrup, muck out barns, gather and dry out the onions, turn up the new potatoes and a great deal more.

I say that I taught them those things—by way of letting you know that we expected kids of all ages to do this work. Now we never made anyone do anything—but we let it be understood that if no one did the cooking or cleaning there would be no food, and no firewood made for a pretty chilly night. Frankly, it was not hard to motivate the kids to do these things—in fact they mostly enjoyed honest work in that setting, and that is precisely what we hoped they would feel. They loved working in the gardens and canning fruit and vegetables, shearing sheep, dying the wool and spinning it. Older students learned trigonometry by helping build a barn or outbuilding—laying out the foundations and elevation—using only the tools the ancient Greeks had. And teachers learned some things too—that often the kids who did the least well in school were natural leaders in another setting. When you live with someone for a few weeks you get to know them differently and that changed a lot of things for students and teachers alike. Most kids hated to leave at the end of their two weeks.

My story today is about a group of seventh graders. They were studying geography and the lesson of the day was how to read a map and use a compass to navigate. They had just learned about the age of exploration in their history class—a time when perspective in art and architecture was discovered and Copernicus and Tycho Brache were laying the foundations of an astronomy offering heretical but crucial insights about the celestial heavens and our place in them.

With this in mind I loaded a group into the old bus we kept on hand and drove them deep into our forest. I knew every inch of that forest having surveyed and mapped it—building trails and marking particularly interesting sights along the way. But for these city kids the woods were a new and somewhat scary place. Having driven around for a while so that no one could figure out where they were, I stopped in a clearing—gave the kids a compass and map and said they should figure out where they were and get back by dinner time if they wanted to eat. It was well past 2pm and they were about 4 miles from where we had started—plenty of time to get back for the meal, but of course, they did not know that. Then I drove away. Not very far. I parked the bus back at the main campus and hiked back to keep watch on my students. Not surprisingly, they were lost. They stumbled around for a while mostly in circles, until one bright fellow recognized a landmark on the map and pointed them to where they were. Now the challenge was getting from where they were back to home base. They had already used up an hour in wandering aimlessly and had only 2 hours left—plenty of time walking briskly. But they were not walking briskly—they were trying to align the map and the compass and taking frequent ‘fixes’ to make sure they stayed on the right course. They made it back eventually—a half hour late, but proudly of their accomplishment and over the supper we had kept warm for them, they boasted about their newfound ability to find their way.

The lesson was learned. Yes, we wanted them to learn how to use a map and a compass, but the real lesson was about teamwork and gaining the self-confidence to sustain them when things were not easy going. It is a lesson we all need to be reminded of from time to time. Life deals us adversity. Sometimes we feel lost and alone, maybe even scared. It happens and it can be manifestly unsettling. But we need to remember that we have a map and a compass that can guide us out of the woods. The map is the lives of those we admire and respect who came before us and showed us how to live lives of strength with perseverance and serenity. The compass is our faith, pointing us in the true direction with magnetic certainty.

We cannot always choose the circumstances of our lives, what we will encounter. Each day brings a fresh opportunity and potentially a new challenge. We can only accept what the day brings and be grateful that we are alive and given the tools to cope with whatever comes. I cannot say that I am always able to accept at first, but soon I am reminded of those kids wandering in the forest and I take heart from their experience. I remember the map—the lives of those who came before me and led the way, and I take out my compass of faith and let it point the way to true North. I’ll get home safe—and tomorrow will be another new day full of promises and challenges. Whatever comes, I have learned that I can find my way as long as I have my map and compass to guide me.

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