This past weekend my kids and I went back to Harpers Ferry to hike the Loudoun Heights trail. James, Charlie and I have hiked in and around Harpers Ferry several times now, and whenever I ask them about going for a hike, they often ask to go there. For this particular hike, we totaled about 7 miles, and the elevation gain was 1,580 feet. We parked at the visitor’s center and walked down the lower town trail until it met up with the Appalachian Trail where it crosses over the Shenandoah River on the side of Route 340. I picked this trail, mainly because I missed the lookout when I hiked that section about a month prior. It had been about three weeks since I had been on my last hike and I spent the days leading up to the hike anxiously awaiting getting back out into the woods with my kids. Like many students, my own children were really excited to go back to in-person learning, but the honeymoon period ended rather quickly and abruptly this year, and many students, teachers and professionals in education have already reached high levels of burn out. I’m actively trying to ward off burnout by spending time outdoors as much as possible. In 2018 I told my principal that I was taking the day off to hike with my kids, she replied that “nature baths” were a great way to reset. I thought she was kind of crazy for using that term, but turns out there is an actual Japanese term for this: shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing.
My neighbor works as a teacher in an elementary school in a district across the Chesapeake Bay from where I live. She and I were talking at the bus stop the other day about the surprising stress of this school year. She told me about having students who cry for their parents, one girl wet her pants, multiple screaming fights on the playground and having second graders who don’t know their letters. Most teachers across the country are worried about the gaps in learning during quarantine and online learning, and most district leaders have directed the same thing – keep teaching them where they are supposed to be, they will catch up. In a neighboring district to mine, the principal of the high school quit a few weeks into the school year and wrote publicly about how it was because of the amount of physical fighting at her school. In my own school, our suspension rates are way up, I was cussed out by a student who then walked out of my room on Tuesday of last week, and we were told at a professional development meeting on Friday that “kids are just angry.” No wonder they’re angry. They lacked routine, rigidity and socialization for almost two years. Many students got their work done, but on their own time, and those who simply did not want to do anything did just that. Now, bringing them back and acting like nothing ever happened, we are seeing a more severe uptick in anxiety, depression and students who are trying to learn with “survival brain” from chronic stress. They are in constant fight or flight mode, and the smallest things are setting them off. Fights are up 21% nationally, with most of that amongst high school freshmen and sophomores. As terrible as 7th and 8th grade are, these kids are a testament of how important it is to go through those years with peers. It is like COVID accelerated the speed in which we were heading towards the dystopian reality of Fahrenheit 451.
Sunday’s weather was much colder than it has been in Maryland, chilled further by a wind. I made sure to bring a few layers for myself and the kids, snacks and water, but decided against weighting my backpack. What I lacked in physical weight, I made up for in emotional weight. I knew I wanted to touch base with my own children about their own mental health, have the time outside to sort out my own teacher burn-out, and then on the drive to the park, I was inundated with vicious texts from my ex. Pretty much upon setting foot on the trail, I was able to let go of a lot of that weight. My children started running down the trail, excited that they knew where to go then, but that we would be heading out on a new adventure. Their enthusiasm knocked out any self-doubt that what had been said about me was true. As I continue to read The Comfort Crisis, I read more validation of the feelings I get from being out in the woods. What was once considered a “soft science,” biophilia, has become scientific research about the chemical changes in our brains when we even just see nature. Our heart rates drop, our cortisol levels drop, we are restored by nature. (Note, this article by Michael Eastman is a condensed version of a chapter in his book I just listened to for the third time in one day that explains just how much the optimal time in nature is). James was the first one to say something about our surroundings. Looking out on the Shenandoah River, he noticed how calming the water was, and asked why the river was so rocky. Charlie complained that he wished the cars weren’t right next to us so that we could appreciate the scene better. My own children have some learning and maturity gaps, but they aren’t the angry ones in school. So how do I reach those kids?
The Loudoun Heights trail is an out-and-back (my kids least favorite kind) and an up and down. Most of the leaves on the trees had started to yellow slightly, but I also noticed more fallen leaves on the trail. I snapped a picture of the two of them in front of the first AT marker we saw, and explained to them what “follow the blaze” means. On the way up, we went slowly and we talked about grit, determination and sisu. The same climb in heat and humidity with roughly thirty pounds on my back felt like a breeze, with literal chilly breezes and only a day pack on. Both James and Charlie complained a few times about being tired, or hungry and I reminded them that complaining only makes everything seem that much worse. Once we reached the blue marker, where the Split Rock/Loudoun Heights trail veers off to the left, there were more yellow and orange leaves with a handful of blood red leaves up above. Charlie told me that they were “explaining, not complaining” and I wondered where that fine line is. Mental toughness is very important to me. I have been complaining in my own head a lot lately, venting to friends and generally feeling fairly worn down. Even on this trip, I was worried about not getting home early enough to get my work done, and considered turning around before we got to the end. I have the word sisu tattooed on my ribs in my dad’s handwriting. Whenever I think about quitting, procrastinating, or half-assing something I know is important, I think about that tattoo. Bitching out on a great view just so I could get home on some imaginary timeline I had created would have been stupid. Giving up on the student who cussed me out is another example. There is a part of me that wants to let her fail. I do not want to walk up to her every few minutes of class and remind her to get to work, or do her work, or pick her head up. But I realize that this girl has probably been let down by most adults in her life. Her cheering section is sparse. So, much to my chagrin, I have continued to be on her and today in class she did her work, without me having to harass her. She thanked me for helping her. This doesn’t mean it’s going to be sunshine and rainbows between us for the rest of the semester, but if I can pass along the value of sticking it out, that’s arguably a way better lesson than teaching her how to conjugate verbs in French.
The views of the Potomac and Shenandoah were worth setting aside my timeline. We were able to see the Maryland Heights overlook, and they remembered being there. We talked about the times we had crossed the pedestrian bridge into Maryland, and looked down at the town of Harpers Ferry and talked about what we were going to eat for our (very) late lunch. Someone asked me if my kids are going to be lifelong hikers. I don’t know. They did ask me if I would buy them Lego sets because they stopped complaining. I explained to them that when I was a kid, I wanted toys and stuff, but that today I have none of those things I loved so much back then. The most important “things” I have from childhood are my memories, from “Saturday morning chores” with my dad to nature walks with my mom. Brene Brown talks about what helps kids be successful, and says the key is in the culture at home. Children who know that they belong, no matter what, are more likely to take risks outside of the home. I can provide that for my own children at home, but shifting my focus so that my students know that they belong in my classroom, even when they drive me crazy, might be a step in the right direction to help curb the anger, angst and anxiety that plagues high schoolers this year. And then getting myself out to the woods for 3 day stretches as often as possible for Easter’s “mental reset” is my new self-improvement goal.