Chaperoning 5th Grade Science Camp at Yosemite: Part 4 of 4

SHOES/LACES and BACKPACK STRAPS
I once read John Wooden used to teach his basketball players how to put on socks and tie shoelaces — I thought that was hilarious. You’d think that by the time they got to UCLA, these high school graduates would’ve already had years of experience in lacing up their Chuck Taylors. It turns out to have been part of the coach’s overall philosophy in being prepared.

The night before the Yosemite Falls Trail challenge hike, Wayland and I had planned ahead to teach the kids how to shorten their backpack straps and tighten their shoelaces. Since it might be the first time these kids to do such a long and high-elevation hike, so we also wanted them to be prepared. Tightening the laces would prevent the toes from sliding down and jamming painfully into the toe-box, when going downhill. Shortening the backpack straps elevated the center of mass higher, making it easier to carry the weight. We also figured we’d empty our own backpacks as much as possible, in case we needed to help carry some of the kids’ items on the hike up. It was complicated by the likelihood that we wouldn’t go back to camp before dinner, and so the kids would need their warm jackets with them for the evening, while the day-hike was going to be sunny and hot.

With Jenna, we were eager and excited to teach these young first-time hikers the rules of the trail. Stay on the uphill side of the trail when you stop, for safety. Pull over, don’t block other hikers by stopping in the middle of the trail. Do not drop rocks or any items down hill or over the side, as it could injure others below. Let other people pass if you are going slow. Call out to let people know you are passing. We also taught them easier and safer ways to walk downhill like zig-zagging, the pigeon toe, and side step.

I was really looking forward to hiking the Yosemite Falls Trail, rather than Vernal Falls (the other option.) In all my previous visits to Yosemite, I’d been to Vernal Falls and Half Dome, but I’d never done the Yosemite Falls Trail. And now, icing the cake was the fact that it had just rained hard the week before. Yosemite Falls was flowing in full majesty, instead of an austere summer trickle. You could actually hear the cascade pounding from the meadows in the valley. But the drought and overall paucity of rainfall has taken its toll. Over the week we were there, you could see Yosemite Falls getting smaller day by day.

Fifth-graders seem to tie their shoelaces as a ritual rather than an application. I pointed out to a couple of the kids that their laces were untied.
“OK,” they bent down and tied the bunny ears, without untying the knot that was resting loosely on top of the shoe tongue.
“No, you need to tighten them.”
“OK,” they tied the bunny ears again for a double knot.
“No, you need to undo the bunny ears AND the knot. Retie the knot so that’s taut over your foot, and then tie the bunny ears again. Otherwise, your foot will be loose inside your shoe, and you’ll get blisters. It’s easier to walk if your feet are snug in your shoes.”
John Wooden had been onto something.

Kids will be kids. Wayland and I were constantly checking with kids during the hike: “How are your feet? How are your shoes feeling?” They would invariably say “Fine,” “I’m OK.” But during breaks many kids were taking off and putting on their shoes and socks repeatedly, more than just getting out a pebble. Sometimes they would wear their shoes without socks. “Aren’t you going to get blisters that way?” “No.”

Likewise with their backpacks. The kids simply crammed everything into their backpacks willy-nilly. This takes up too much space, especially when it got hot and the kids shed their jackets and warm layers to store inside. It also made it hard to find things quickly, as you had to dig around the contents like a tumble dryer. We tried to teach them to roll up their jackets when putting them inside their backpacks.

Even though the statistics were more impressive, hiking 1000 ft over two miles with 30 switchbacks was less exciting than climbing Grandmother Rock (15 ft) or Spider Cave (25 ft) — it’s just walking, after all. Hiking is one those activities which you appreciate more as you get older, like jazz. Even for some adults, it’s just a means to an end (“I don’t care where we hike, but where will we go for lunch afterwards?”)

It was no surprise that for the kids, the most enjoyable aspect was chatting with each other, and occasionally taking a serious look at the view, interspersed with commentary: “I’m tired of going uphill.” “Can we stop for a break?” “I need this rock to give me energy.” “I need this stick to help me walk.”

I was feeling slightly whiny and fatigued myself. I’m used to hiking at a constant clip, and at my own pace, which tends to be faster than average. Being forced to go slower than my natural pace is more tiring. [40] Although if I’m engaged in talking with someone, I will instinctively adjust to their speed; the pleasure of conversation will outweigh the effort of slowing down.

Now I was hiking with 14 kids, whose collective tendency was to dawdle. So engrossed in talking, they walked even slower. The frequent stops and starts for water breaks, etc, were also more draining. But hey, I was here for them, not me.

Tommy “Tender Wizard” the Tomato — the Pied Piper of chaperones with a relaxed and fun-loving approach — said his trail group was so jazzed, they went up another 500 feet along the trail, and they got done before we did (it took us 6 hours, including stops). For that, I wished I could have been with their trail group instead that day! Perhaps preparing for the shoelaces and backpack straps had been overkill. Some kids got dehydrated; two nosebleeds, one headache, lots of chapped lips — perhaps we would have done better in simply reminding them drink more water, and worrying less about anything else.

Still, there was no better place to be than on the Yosemite Falls Trail that day. The clear blue-sky, mild sunny weather, the incomparable view of the valley and the surrounding mountains and granite walls, experiencing it in postcard-perfect conditions was a rare privilege. Especially when we stopped for lunch in a rocky bowl almost directly across from the falls, with a near-horizontal rainbow bowing across violin strings of falling water. Jenna took great care in appointing seats for each of the kids, placing them just so on each rock. (The rocks were almost all taller than each child!) It was a challenge even for us three adults to move around to distribute the lunch ingredients. But the setting was incredible. You could almost feel the mist of water. I finally brought out my binoculars for the first time, and the kids took turns looking through.

No subsequent hike to Yosemite Falls will ever be as memorable as this first one.

Yosemite Fall with rainbow

Yosemite YF Lunch

Lunch in the Rocky Bowl

THE WORST THINGS THAT HAPPENED FROM POORLY-TIED SHOELACES on this trip was serious. One of girls in Mom’s group tripped while walking — on pavement —to a shuttle stop. Because her shoelaces were not tightened, when she stumbled, her foot fell out of her boot, and she hit her head hard. She got dizzy, a lump on forehead, and some pain. They caught the shuttle back to Camp Curry, and checked with Mr. MacLeod (who had stayed back at camp that day) and the Nature Bridge staff. Since the girl had sustained a head injury, she was required to be medically examined at the clinic in Yosemite Village. It was getting close to the clinic’s 5 PM closing time. So Herb Chan (the volunteer designated driver) drove Mom and the girl to the clinic, just in time to see a doctor. The clinic explained they would have to charge ~$138 before they could examine the patient (the patient could get reimbursement from their own health insurance afterwards.) If they couldn’t reach the girl’s parents, Herb was going to fork over his own credit card.

Mom got hold of the girl’s mother on the phone to explain the situation, and ask for her credit card authorization. The girl’s mom spoke Cantonese; fortunately, so did Mom. The mother balked. “Why can’t they take insurance? Why can’t the school pay? I have to ask my husband first.” Mom was outraged, “How can this woman not pay? Doesn’t she care about her daughter?” In the meantime, the doctor gave the girl a cursory check. By the time the cold-footed mom had decided that her daughter should be medically examined, and was willing to provide the credit card number, the doctor had left for the day. Mom later said it would have been better if they hadn’t gotten hold of the girl’s parents, used Herb’s credit card to pay for the doctor for a proper examination. (Act first, ask later!)

They went back to Mom’s tent-cabin for the girl to rest under Mom’s care. By late evening, the girl was feeling well enough to go back to her own cabin. She got up, tamped her feet half-way into each half-boot — not bothering to unlace them — and shuffled down the tent-cabin steps. The next day, the girl was OK to go on the activities, even though she had a little pain and a large lump on her head.

Within the pool of chaperones, Lincoln always tries to include a designated driver and a camp monitor chaperone. The designated driver is not for DUI prevention, but to have access to a car in case of emergencies. Science camp travels by bus, so they needed to have wheels for contingencies, like taking students to get medical attention. Last year, Herb Chan needed medical attention himself; he slipped on ice and broke his wrist. Wayland had to drive him and his car home.

The camp monitor is an adult who watches over any kids staying behind at camp — not participating in the trail group activities because they are sick, injured, or simply punished for misbehavior. Ideally, it would be an administrator, like a principal, so that they could also deal with serious discipline infractions, relieving teachers of that burden at camp.

ONE EXTRA GUMMY BEAR 一個都不能多

Wayland and I were literally left holding the bag of leftover gummy bears which Jenna had left with us the previous day. In hopes of some relief, we told the kids that they behaved well, that if we didn’t have to call on any of them for the next 24 hours, until we boarded the bus back to Oakland, we would hand out the rest of the candy.
Yes, it was a bribe.
No, it didn’t work.

We had to nag the students with the usual litany of “keep quiet,” “pay attention,” “drop that stick” all the live long day. But there was never any doubt we would hand out the gummy bears. The kids would never let us get away with it!

Come Friday afternoon, we were waiting around at the Camp Curry parking lot for the buses to show up (the coaches taking us back to Oakland), I surreptitiously counted the remaining gummy bears in the bag. There would only be one per student, plus half a dozen left over. Wayland went around holding out the bag to each kid. “We have enough for one per person, so take just one, and we’ll figure out what to do with the leftovers.” As he was saying this, the first couple of kids happened to take two.

There was an immediate outcry from the other kids: “You’re ONLY supposed to have ONE! Put it back. Just one!” The rest of the kids each duly took one gummy bear, and Wayland hung onto the rest of the bag.
“Here,” Lizzie came up to me, holding out a red gummy bear.
I was confused. “Thank you, but no, I already had one. To be honest, Mr. Lew and I each scarfed a bunch of them yesterday afternoon.” (And if we hadn’t, there would have been enough for you to have each gotten two gummy bears!).
“No,” she explained. “I took two, but since you’re only supposed to take one, I’m giving one back. But Cindy took two, and she said she’d throw it away, and she pretended to but she didn’t” By now more kids around me chorused vigorously. “That’s not fair,” “She shouldn’t have two gummy bears,” “That’s not nice, that’s cheating.”

“Well, thank you for your honesty, Lizzie. I appreciate it.” I looked at her, and then saw Cindy keeping away in the distance. I grinned ruefully. “Yeah, I know, Cindy . . . has a personality of her own.” (Are chaperones even allowed to badmouth one student to other students?) The past few days I had observed Cindy’s tendency to hoard. Whenever we handed out food for lunch, she always took more than she could finish, and would squirrel it away in her backpack, for later. It didn’t seem to be a case of 眼闊肚窄 (her eyes being bigger than her stomach), rather it was the ‘i’t’s better that it’s mine, rather someone else’s.’

Lizzie continued on. It wasn’t fair Cindy could get away with it. “At school, I’m nice to her, and but she says mean things to me.”
“If you think she’s done something bad, maybe you shouldn’t have respect for her. Do you really want to care about the opinion of someone whom you don’t like or respect?” (I was sinking fast out of my depth.)

My spiel washed over their heads. The kids hovered around expectantly, with growing bewilderment. Wasn’t I going to give Cindy a talking-to and confiscate the extra gummy bear already? That’s what adults were supposed to do, right? Figure out who’s right, who’s wrong; and punish the wrong-doer.

If I were a teacher or principal, who knew what they were doing, I assume that’s what I would have done.

But I didn’t. Would it change anything? Would it be worth the effort? One measly gummy bear. Really, kids, it’s not going to matter. You will grow up, get jobs, and and earn enough buy all the gummy bears you want. In fact by then you won’t want gummy bears. It’ll be organic 70% cacao dark chocolate covered gluten-free goji berries. Or beer.

As a cynic whose heart is now two sizes too small — the shrinking happens when you mutate into adulthood, kids — it’s touching to see children’s unblinkingly belief that grown-ups can fix all problems. It’s even tempting to bask a little in the undeserved heroism.

But there is also my saudade in your inevitable loss of naiveté — as you grow older and discover that things aren’t always fair; the right rarely prevail; and the wrong don’t always get their just deserts.

Fifth-graders, you will find that grown-ups are not any smarter, or better-behaved than you.
Some people will play fair and be nice. Some people will play dirty and get ahead at the expense of others. But takes all kinds of people to make this world complete.

So for the here and now, did I go with the “Cindy gets away with an extra gummy bear and you don’t/Life is unfair/So deal with it”? Or did I give them what they expected, and confiscate the contraband, just to prolong their childhood faith in grown-ups’ ability and duty to make everything alright?

Neither. The lesson of this teachable moment was going to be “Grown-ups are flaky,” because hallelujah and deus ex machina! the coaches had just pulled up. I slunk off to start loading the suitcases.

WHITEWASHING LIKE TOM SAWYER
It was our morning on last day, half day actually. All seventeen of the 17 Falls trail group were at the Ahwahnee Hotel stop waiting for the shuttle. The kids were antsy. Jenna had to tell the kids sprawled along the bench seat to scoot over to make room for an elderly woman. The woman didn’t take the seat, probably leery of such hubbub. Peter, normally one of the good kids, was literally climbing — not the walls — but the stone-and-mortar base of the shelter column. He got the idea from an athletic young man who was setting up his rock-climbing equipment across the way. “Get down!” I commanded. (It didn’t help to know that Peter had fallen out of bed a few times at camp.) It became a teachable moment. “What’s the stuff climbers use on their hands when they climb?”
“It’s talc or chalk, and it helps absorb the sweat from their hands so they have a better grip.”
“What’s it made from?”
“Hmm, maybe ground up chalk dust like when you clap blackboard erasers together…”
“We have whiteboards in class.”
“Here, I can make some chalk powder for you . . .” Josh, always ready to help out a friend, saw an opportunity to grind rocks into dust.

There was another man also waiting at the shuttle stop, observing the scene. He struck up a conversation with us. “I’d like to be a chaperone.” Wayland and I looked at each other and simply cracked up. I can’t imagine what the man saw in us or what we were doing that would have tempted him to say that. He told us when his daughters were young, he would have to chaperone their out-of-town trips for sports activities or field trips. We told him he would be very welcome to at the Lincoln School 5th grade science camp next year. But he lived in Arizona.

Perhaps this man was moved by the idea of helping others being its own fulfillment and reward, as most of us chaperones were. For me, the best experiences are those where you learn something new, or are dropped into an alien environment from your usual existence. The former reduces ignorance, the latter saves you from complacency. Chaperoning science camp does both for me. Fifth-graders are not a part of my day-to-day life. After hanging around a school-ful of them for a week, I’ve learnt that I don’t know as much as I ought to, I have less control over anything than I think, but with enough best intentions, common sense, and patience, things will work out, though not always in the way I expected.

Frankly, I think chaperoning 5th graders for a week would be a good exercise for any working professional. For a volunteer contribution of less than $200, it packs more punch than any corporate training/team-building/morale boosting workshop. Working with kids is fun and keeps you on your toes. And kids will tell it like it is – keeping it real.

Whoever you are, future chaperones, here’s a list of practical tips:

  1. Bring lots of extra bandannas – There’s always kids who forget theirs. Be realistic enough to not expect every single loaner back. (Not all kids are like Liam.
  2. Carry in your daypack (beyond the Nature Bridge packing list):
    – squeeze tube of lip balm
    – bandages
    – small swiss army knife
    – wet wipes
    – packets of tissue paper
    – plastic bags for trash
  3. Bring PABA-free (hypoallergenic) sunscreen (the REI one in a white-yellow packaging is pretty good.)
  4. Immediately train your trail group to count off. (The trail groups rosters number each kid.) Make them count off religiously, before and after every group movement!
  5. If there are two or more kids who are troublesome together while on trail group walks, separate them, i.e. send kid A to the front; and kid B to the back. This works for the short-term, before entropy joins them back together.
  6. Otherwise have the single troublesome kid to walk next to you, so you can keep close tabs on him/her.
  7. Check in with the naturalist at beginning of each day, to get a sense of schedule/sequence. It helps the chaperones to know when to herd the kids more quickly, to make sure time doesn’t run out for doing other activities. But camp activities are inherently flexible.
  8. Make sure your kids really drink enough water and don’t get dehydrated. Otherwise . . .
  9. Know how to stop nosebleeds. (Better yet, take a first aid or CPR class)
  10. Know where the Camp Curry security/extra keys office is located, and their hours.
  11. Consider confiscating kids’ flashlights before entering Spider Cave – make a judgement call depending the kids’ personalities and dynamics
  12. Inspect kids’ shoelaces for tautness, especially for long/elevation gain hikes.
  13. Inspect kids’ backpack straps and adjust, before long/elevation-gain hikes. Kids tend to like the straps long to drag; but it’s less ergonomic to carry.
  14. Bring binoculars or gummy bears. Useful as a bribe for good behavior.
  15. Know the current price of commodity iron: 68$ per DMT (dry metric ton); and granite countertops ($45-$250 per square foot). You will awe the Minecraft players.
  16. Practice how to roll up and stuff sleeping bags quickly. You will need to help kids pack away their sleeping bags during departure day cabin inspections
  17. Know when to ask another adult, or kid, for help.

BACK TO POST [40] When I was in high school, I used to run the Bay to Breakers with my friends. One year, we had to walk the course because one of my friends was hung over from prom the night before. Walking turned out to be much more exhausting than running the course.

Chaperoning 5th Grade Science Camp at Yosemite: Part 3 of 4

When we went by the Ahwahnee Hotel to catch the shuttle. Jenna explained that it was a historic building and the ‘grandest’ hotel in Yosemite. “Do they serve acorns at the Ahwahnee Hotel?” Mathilda asked. “They should serve acorn mush so that the visitors who come here can try the foods that Indians ate.” Jenna said no. Mathilda was astonished. “Well they should!” Acorn mush had been on her mind since Grandmother Rock.

GRANDMOTHER ROCK
Before Spider Cave, Jenna took us to Grandmother Rock to practice climbing. Grandmother Rock is over 10 feet high. There’s a rule that kids are not to climb on anything taller than themselves, except under adult supervision.

This exercise would also be a preview of how the kids would handle Spider Cave. There was usually at least one kid in each group, who was not up for the challenge of climbing in the dark. No kid would be pushed to do something they didn’t feel ready for.

Everyone climbed up Grandmother Rock, some with a little boost of the foot from Jenna. The entire group spread out quite comfortably on the expansive, relatively flat top. There were grinding holes of various depths and diameters in the center, which Jenna explained that the Ahwahneechee women used to use to grind acorn and other plants they gathered for food. The depths indicated that the holes had been used for thousands of year. Perhaps different holes correlated to different foods.

“Now to get down, you have two options,” Jenna grinned. “You either slide down the other side of the rock, or you can climb down the same way you came up.” Most of the kids, starting with the most fearless, slid down. There was a hollow at the footfall, scooped out over time by the landing of countless feet. It had filled with water from the previous week’s rain. Most kids simply landed feet-first in the puddle. One or two kids opted to climb down instead. Now only Wayland and I were left at the top.
“Adults! Adults! Adults!” the kids screamed. There’s nothing like seeing grown-ups attempt what kids do naturally. Wayland slid down first, and landed with a 9.0 finish. “Yay!” they cheered him.
As I scooted into position, I saw that it was going to be hard to land without getting my shoes wet. That little worry made me nervous, and I hesitated for longer than I wanted to. “Here goes nothing!” I pushed my self, and landed with a small splash. During this distraction, Sonny and some of the other boys had climbed up Grandmother Rock again on their own.
“I was going to ask if anyone wanted to climb up again, they could. But you guys beat me to it.” Jenna said, mildly surprised. All of the kids went for an encore; even Phillip, who was not the smallest, but the most timid. It seemed as if our kids would all be going into the Spider Cave, and Wayland would be waiting outside by himself. In fact, most kids said afterwards that they had more fun at Grandmother Rock than Spider Cave.

20150211_094217-2

In the afternoon, we walked from Lower Yosemite Falls, where we had lunched and made our way to the Yosemite Visitor Center Museum. We had arrived way in advance for Julia Parker’s story-telling time. So we walked around the outside exhibits, to check out the miniature model dioramas, and read the interpretive signs. The best part was when the kids could step inside the Miwok bark huts and take pictures of each other. Still, they were listless, restless, and acting up. “It’s funny how you can tell they’re low on energy,” Jenna commented. When we had dragged out as much time as we could outdoors, we went inside the museum. We were a little apprehensive; hopefully the 5th-graders would behave when during Julia’s session.

Julia Parker is nominally an NPS employee, but more than that, she is a living institution. She is an Ahwahneechee woman, whose ancestors lived in Yosemite Valley, which they called Ahwahnee. She’s old, with long salt and pepper hair. She tells stories, demonstrates and talks about Indian culture and history with museum visitors. Everyone is in awe of her and treats her with utmost respect. Her male counterpart is Ben. She and Ben appear on alternate afternoons at the museum to talk to students and groups. (Last year, our trail group was at the museum on a “Julia” day, so I’ve never met Ben.)

Julia settled in on her perch at museum, a raised platform with basket-making materials, traditional tools, and incongruously, a 1970’s beige push-button phone. The kids gathered around her, sitting cross-legged on the carpet.

20150210_134753

Spirit walk in the meadow under El Capitan (Each person walked alone in their own space/silence)

Since we had spent most of the previous day in the meadow under El Capitan, Julia told an Indian story about El Capitan. A mama bear had two cubs who fell asleep on top of a rock. The rock grew so tall overnight, the top couldn’t be seen. Mama bear panicked, not knowing where her cubs where. She put out an APB to all the animals to help her find her lost cubs. They figured out the cubs were on top of the rock, but each animal who tried to reach the cubs failed. Finally a puny inch worm crawled zig-zag up the face of El Capitan and reached the cubs. The timing of the story was very apt; less than two months ago, two climbers had successfully free-climbed their way to the top of El Capitan.

Having spent all day in the sun, doing so much exercise, most of the kids dozed off soon after they sat inside the cool, dim museum, lulled by Julia’s serene, almost monotone voice. I hoped Julia wasn’t offended; that she was used to that with so many school groups visiting her. At least the kids were quiet, and not disruptive while she spoke. I felt drowsy too.

At length, Julia’s tale ended and she asked “Do you have any questions? It can be about the story, or anything about the Indians in general.”
There was a a pause. I dreaded the thud of silence, awkward when no one has any questions after a long presentation.

Surprisingly, the kids perked up and peppered away with questions, mostly from Doug, Sonny, Josh, Anne. There were a lot of food questions, since the we had just seen the grinding holes in Grandmother Rock. Most of the boys’ questions were about ‘manly’ things like hunting, arrows, etc. Julia answered some, but deflected many as “that’s man’s talk.” She may have been capable of answering; but it seemed more like a cultural practice to segregate certain topics by gender roles. If you asked an Ahwahneechee man about making acorn mush, perhaps he might defer to women as the authorities on that topic.

Naturally, the boys wanted to meet Ben; Josh even asked if they could come back to the museum the next day! Even the kids who hadn’t asked Julia anything wanted to come back to the museum and meet Ben. I was impressed that the kids found the museum interesting and wanted to go back. Even though it’s small, and we had spent very little time inside, they were quite interested in the exhibits.

We escorted our kids out the museum, and assembled on the large open plaza in front. The adults were relieved, job well done: we’d managed to avoid any behavior mishaps in our trail group for the day. Jenna brought out plain animal crackers for the afternoon snack and we would have a ‘toast’, to ensure everyone to drank some water.

Josh said “I don’t want to drink any water. I’m not thirsty.”
“You need to get your bottle out to toast.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
“Come on, everyone is ready.”
“Josh, get out your water bottle now.” I glared at him from across the circle.
“No I don’t want to!”
We volleyed back and forth a few times. It’s unusual for Lincoln students to be so stubborn. Say what you will about stereotypes, but most of them fit the Chinese archetype of being 聽話 obedient.
By now, the rest of the kids and adults were watching our exchange in silence. I didn’t want to hold up the rest of the group from toasting, and waste their time, so I got up and took
Josh aside.
“Look, even if you don’t want to drink, you should take out your water bottle, and take a sip.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
“Even if you don’t feel thirsty, you need to drink some water, otherwise you’ll get dehydrated. We’ve been out and about all day.”
“I don’t want to drink any water.”
“Well at least pretend to take a sip of water. [28] When you’re in a group, and every one else is taking out their bottle of water, you need to participate. It’s about having respect for your group.”

“No, I’m not thirsty.”
“You need to drink to stay hydrated!” Oh my god, I was turning into my dad.

When I was a kid, what I most hated was when my dad nagged me ad nauseum about something I already knew: “Don’t read in such dim light, or your eyes will go bad. Don’t read slouching in bed, otherwise your eyes will go bad.” (I didn’t think about how he might be tired of saying it all the time.) As much as the repetitiveness, it was the know-it-all tone that bugged me, “I know better than you, so I’m teaching you.” [29] I knew he was right, but the kid in me was defiant — I wanted to annoy him in return for annoying me in the first place!

“Josh, drink some water. Your body needs the water it’s lost.”
“Water makes me barf.”

It was a good thing I was too angry with him, otherwise I would have lost it by bursting into laughter. The bloody-minded, ridiculous things kids say just to be contrary. We shot mental daggers from our eyes at each other unblinkingly, like cheesy special effects from a Shaw Brothers flick.

“Look, this not just about the water. This is about respect for your group. You are part of this group, and you’ve gotta have respect for the others in the group. By not getting out your water bottle to drink, and spending all this time arguing about it, you are disrespecting the others in the group. What if this had been yesterday, right before we went to Spider Cave? What if we were wasting time having this same argument then? There wouldn’t have been time to go through Spider Cave twice, we’d only have been able to go through once. How would you have felt about that? You would have missed out, all of you would have missed out on the extra fun?Drink some water now!”
“I don’t want to.”
I sighed. This was getting nowhere, so I cut my losses and tried a different tactic.

“Josh, you’re a smart kid. I’ve already explained to why you need to drink water to stay hydrated. But I know I don’t really need to repeat it, because I know you’re a smart kid, you understand what I’m saying. I’m just reminding you.’
“I’m not smart!”
“How can you not be smart? You’ve made it to fifth grade! You’re here at science camp! You’ve made it this far. You’re certainly not dumb!”

This was ludicrous — kids always 認叻! What silly kid would proclaim himself dumb to the adult he was arguing with. Josh really was stubborn 硬頸!

We walked back into the circle. [30]

“IT’S TOO BAD WE DIDN”T GET TO GO BACK TO THE MUSEUM TO SEE BEN,” Mathilda told me. She had a lot of questions she wanted to ask.
“Well, maybe you could write him a letter and ask your questions. We could get his address from Jenna, or send it to him at the museum. Or if you have email, you could probably email him.”
“He doesn’t have email!” Mathilda declared, surprised at my cIuelessness. “How could Indians have email?” I think she had the conflated the notion that Ben was probably as old as Julia, and since they were such experts about Indian traditions, they must be living the traditional way as well, so it would be incongruous for them to have email.

In the interlude between the end of the Yosemite Falls Trail hike and dinner at Yosemite Lodge, Wayland and I decided to let the kids play in the plaza in front of Yosemite Lodge. It was too late to go to the museum. It wasn’t worth shuttling back to Curry Camp to wash-up for 5 minutes, and turn right around to shuttle back to Yosemite Lodge for dinner.

Led by the charismatic Doug, the kids elected to play “Wax at the Museum,” which seemed to be a variation of “Tag.” Doug was one fifth-grader who was smarter than most adults. He was curious, articulate, attentive, and poised, but still came across as a personable ten-year old. I kept half-thinking “what is he doing here, shouldn’t he be in college already?” [31]

Wayland and I kept a casual eye on the kids, calling out “Freeze!” whenever any lodge guests or hospitality workers (including a man in kitchen whites, with a matching white rose tucked coquettishly behind his ear) were walking through the plaza area. The kids would freeze in place and let the adults pass through in peace. From where we were sitting, you could see into the Yosemite Lodge lounge, where ESPN was on a large screen TV. The TV was jarring, surreal reminder that the world marched on outside our science camp bubble.

Timothy, who had been the first one tagged, was leap-running from bench to bench. “Look, I’m doing parkour!”
I called him over. “Stop that. Sit down here for a little time out.” It was a half-hearted admonishment. The plank benches were laid out in an enticingly parallel configuration, with just the right spacing. I would want to run on them too, if I were a ten-year old.
Timothy sat down on a bench behind us. Sonny who had now been tagged out, came over by him, and they started horsing around. I turned forward again, focusing on the larger group of kids still in play.

The second round of “Wax at the Museum” started. Only Timothy was still sitting on the bench behind me. He was crying quietly, immobile, but for periodic involuntary gulps.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
He didn’t answer.
“What happened?”
He didn’t say anything. I was puzzled, but only mildly concerned. It had been a strenuous and exciting day. Perhaps it hadn’t been a good idea to let the kids play ‘Wax at the Museum’ after the long hike — it got them wound up. Maybe Timothy needed some quiet time on his own, until dinner might be just enough.
When the dining hall doors opened, we were the first trail group to go in and queue for food. Timothy hung back, keeping to himself, still crying, uncharacteristically silent – his usual mode is cocky bravado. I stood at the end of the line with him, asking him what was wrong, what had happened. He didn’t say anything, responding with only crying gulps. Alarm finally dawned on me — crying this prolonged was serious.

I gently led him outside. There was a Badger Pass two-seater ski lift chair parked in front of the dining hall. We sat down.

“What happened? Did someone do something to hurt you? Did someone say something that really hurt your feelings?” Was it something I had done? What could I do to make it better? Did someone say something about someone else? Did he want to talk to Mr. Fong?

He still didn’t say anything. Sometimes he nodded, sometimes he bobbed his head, but mostly it was the hiccuping reflexes of crying.

I tried everything I could think of to get him to talk. Timothy was getting goose pimples on his arms from the chilly air, so I went to get his jacket. I made him drink some water. I gave him a gummy bear (I was holding the leftover stash from Jenna,) but he simply gripped it in his hand.

Some people will go into an unstoppable rant when they are upset, telling you everything: who, what, how, why, twice, thrice. Listening to them takes patience, but at least you know what is going on. This was so much worse. Timothy was holding it in so resolutely — in the face of muteness, I had nothing to work with. I was making it worse by muddling around. I couldn’t figure out if I should keep repeating the questions at him until he talked; or just sit there in silent sympathy with him, and wait until he was ready. I’d dealt with lots of crazy co-workers and work situations before, but nothing as nerve-wracking as this.

All options exhausted, I started crying too. I was sad that he was so sad. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find out what was the problem. I was helpless in making him feel better. Most of all I was terrified that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and screwing things up.

In my desperation I shared a story with Timothy which I rarely told anyone: someone had said something that deeply hurt me when I was a child. I hoped by telling him about my story, he would to tell me his hurt in return. But he still cried in deafening silence. [32]

Mr. Fong came out of the dining hall — his group had gone in to dinner, as had many others during our roost on the ski lift chair. I briefly explained the situation. I’d struck out; now it was his turn at bat.

That night’s dinner theme was “Oriental.” I got some minestrone soup — fortunately they hadn’t tried to make it ‘hot-and-sour’ — and slumped into an open seat. I was glad not to be hungry; and forego gloppy chow mein and sesame chicken.

Mom wasn’t at the dinner table either. It had turned out to be a bad night for her as well, more spectacularly so — one of the girls in her trail group had fell and hit her head, sustaining a possible concussion. Mom was holed up in our cabin watching over the resting girl. Mr. MacLeod had arranged for to-go dinner boxes to be packed up and taken over to them.

Mom’s words “I would have flunked her, if I were the principal,” ricocheted in my head. I had absolutely flunked chaperone-hood, but still I wished my mom was at the table so I could discuss Timothy with her, even if it was a relative tempest in a teacup, compared to what she had on her plate.

Mr. Fong was gone for a really long time, but eventually I saw him, Timothy . . . and Sonny talking in the far corner of the dining hall. Sonny?! I racked my brains, had they been doing anything so egregious that could have upset Timothy so strongly? . . . and how on earth had I not noticed anything!?

Timothy took a tray and went to the food line. Mr. Fong came back and resumed eating his by-now cold dinner.
“Is Timothy OK? What was the problem?” I asked.
“Well, apparently they were playing and Sonny said Timothy couldn’t play because he was on a time out, and Timothy said he could and they beat each other up. Timothy claims Sonny put him in chokehold, and Sonny claims he didn’t, he merely punched him lightly in the arm. But neither are willing to back down from their side of the story, so . . .” he shrugged.

I had a nagging, sinking feeling that I must have part of the problem. Perhaps Timothy hadn’t wanted to tell me because he felt I had done him some wrong?

“It’s all right.” Mr. Fong took it all in stride — it was all in day’s work for him. “We had some wrinkles in our group today too.”

I ended up telling Mom about the incident weeks later. “Just so you know for next time,” she advised me, “you should ask the kid’s buddy, or the other kid that was involved, or even the other kids who were around. They would definitely tell you if you asked.” I wish I had known, it would have saved a lot of trouble. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that to begin with!

WHAT IFS
Hanging around 5th graders inevitably made me think back to when I was their age, reviving long dormant memories. My fifth grade year had been marked by a singular incident. Hanging around the Lincoln School contingent made me think about the what-ifs — in a parallel universe, I might have gone to Lincoln for grade school. What then would I be like today? [33] How much would we have in common, that could-have-been me and the me I am now?

STICKS AND STONES
There were several journaling exercises during the activities. Jenna would write leading questions on her mini-whiteboard: What did I like most about Yosemite? What was most memorable? What did I see? hear? smell? touch? Most kids would write about the more lofty aspects, like the sound of Yosemite Falls, gripping the stone surfaces when climbing Spider Cave, the sight of of Half Dome. If they had been honest, they would have written something like this:

What I liked most: There were sticks and rocks everywhere.
Most memorable: Crushing rocks with my bare hands.
I saw: The shiny crystals inside the rock that I broke open
I heard: The banging of rocks I pounded together.
I touched: The rough grainy bark of the sticks I gripped.
I smelled: Ground-up dry rock dust.

Just like the one-time principal of their school [34], most of the boys in our trail group were obsessed with sticks and stones. When you’re walking miles and miles in Yosemite each day, with sticks and stones are strewn all over the place, resistance to temptation is futile.

The kids would pick up fallen branches to use as walking sticks “We have to walk sooooo much I’m tired. I need this stick to help me walk!” Occasionally they’d wave them around as swords, which drew immediate rebukes from the chaperones.

Just as frequently, the kids would pick up rocks and stones along the way, Mostly, they’d bang or scratch them together. Most of the time they knew better than to throw them, except whenever we were next to a creek.

Yosemite Swing Bridge beach

The beach at Swinging Bridge. Lots of rocks.

Whenever and wherever we were sitting down, the kids would start fiddling around with whatever was in reach: dirt, sand, dried leaves, pine needles, and rocks on the ground, building and destroying little piles. It was what was at hand in the outdoor classroom. Their hands needed to fidget with something, even as they were listening with their ears. The kids may have looked inattentive, but they were sponging up some of it. Liam impressed Jenna by knowing that the name of the Indians was Ahwahneechee – he hadn’t looked up from the rocks he was preoccupied with. (He’d heard it the night before at Naturalist Dave’s bear talk.)

Being the responsible chaperones we purported to be, we nagged constantly at the boys to drop the sticks or rocks that they were just as constantly picking up. I started made bad jokes to relieve the tedium [35] of repetition: “Timothy, drop that rock so it can stay here with its friends.” “Sonny, I’ve taken away enough sticks from you to build a Miwok bark hut”.

“Do I need to really need to sound like a broken record and tell you to drop that stick?” I nagged at one kid. Then to soften it into a teachable moment, I added “Do you even know where the expression comes from? Back in the day when we had vinyl records; if the record got messed up at a certain point in the song, it would repeat itself.” [36]

Sometimes we gave up and temporarily turned a blind eye to what they picked up, until they did something dangerous, like waving a stick around high. “Drop that!” — we didn’t want any eyes poked out. One girl in another trail group had sustained an eye injury from a rock accidentally bouncing into her eye when the kids were skipping stones.

The kids weren’t above gaming us either. “But Mr. Wayland said I could have a stick,” when I told one boy to drop the stick. Or “How come you’re not telling Adrian to stop playing with rocks, but you won’t let me?”

Who’s kidding whom? It’s more fun when it’s forbidden — if we had given carte blanche to the kids with sticks and stones, they would quickly become bored with them.

The Pollyanna in me was glad (but trying not to show it) that the kids liked playing with sticks and stones. I didn’t think it was all bad. After all, wasn’t that the point of bringing them to Yosemite — to experience the great outdoors up close and personal, and derive their own amusements directly from nature? You hear about kids nowadays who only know how to ‘play’ with manufactured toys, that they can’t combat boredom on their own. [37] , [38] It’s refreshing and reassuring to see it’s not entirely true. Left to their own devices in Yosemite, they can entertain themselves just fine — with a little help from Minecraft.

The highlight of the Yosemite Falls Trail hike was OMG Point, a bit past Columbia Rock, accessed by a short spur trail. Since the platform behind the safety railing at OMG Point was so small, Jenna would take 4-5 kids at a time to view the stupendous panorama stretching from Yosemite Falls to Half Dome, gorgeously clear on this bright blue-sky golden-sunny day. In the meantime, the the rest of the trail group had to wait on the main trunk trail.

20150212_105546

Columbia Rock, on the Yosemite Falls Trail

Jenna had assigned a little journaling exercise for the kids who were with her at OMG Point. Some kids finished the assignment quickly. Since we were parked about a thousand feet above the valley floor, on a narrow mountain trail, there was very little space for the kids to run about and play that was within sight of the chaperones. Naturally they started to pick up rocks and stones and bang them together, trying to make fire caveman-style, pulverize the granite into powder, scratch graffiti onto the rock faces of the trail walls, or even fossick for ore. And even though we’d been very strict while hiking up about kids not picking up rocks, because dropping them downhill could injure hikers below us, at this point, it seemed under or beyond our control.

I weakly tried to salvage teachable moments out of rock-play. “You know, you could also start a fire if you had a magnifying glass, and directed sunlight through it.” “Notice how one rock will leave a scratch mark on the other, but not the other way around? There’s something called Mohr’s scale of hardness. . .” The kids sensibly tuned me out and contentedly played on their own.

“I’m looking for rocks with valuable metal and take them back with me and sell them,” said Timothy. “Well, you can’t take anything from a national park, not even rocks or sticks. You have to leave them here. Otherwise one day there’d be none left.” (I often repeat this to my own mother, who really likes beach-combing for interesting rocks to take them home.)

The kids pounded rocks with gusto. It was very satisfying when a rock broke open into two, revealing its interior. Most of the rocks in Yosemite Valley are granite, which is relatively brittle. The boys showed me their crushed rocks.
“Is this diamond? It’s sparkly.”
“No it’s quartz.”
Some rocks had specks of reddish-brown. “Well that could be iron,” I speculated. (Oh why oh why hadn’t I paid more attention to earth science class in 9th grade?)
“What’s iron used for?”
“Hmm…. cast iron frying pans? Woks?” [39]

“How much is this worth?” Josh demanded.
“Well that depends on the price of iron right now, which we could look up when we get back to school.” (Or an internet connection.) Hastily, I did a mental back-of-the-envelope calculation.
“Hmm, maybe that’s worth ten cents.”
“Only ten cents!” said Josh doubtfully. “Nooo . . . it’s gotta be worth more than that. Like $20!”
He eyed me suspiciously. “I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to trick me into leaving all these rocks here, by making me think they’re worthless, because you said we’re not supposed to take rocks home.” With an exaggerated flourish, he surreptitiously stuffed a few rocks to weigh down his backpack.

I found it a bit odd that they seemed so fixated on the resource value of the rocks. But I’d also been overhearing the kids talking about an online game they played that involved warlords and accumulating resources (Later I found out it was Minecraft). It started to make sense. The concept of mining-based wealth had carried over from the virtual world into the real world, where they could actually lay their hands on ore.

BACK TO POST [28] I mentally cringed as I said this. I was a hypocritical adult to preach to him about conformity, doing things you didn’t want to do, so you could fit in with the others. That’s 180 degrees from my personal philosophy

Of course I did just that. On our way back to Oakland, our bus stopped at Carl’s Junior in Oakdale for dinner. I wasn’t hungry and I didn’t find anything on the menu appealing. But I ordered a hamburger and ate half: to be polite; to forestall any fuss of “why aren’t you eating anything? you should eat something”; and to avoid appearing snobby “I don’t like fast-food.” The kids were excited to be eating at a fast-food chain. It’s OK occasionally, and this would be appropriately one of those occasions.

Almost all the kids also picked up the nutritional information pamphlets that chains are required to provide. I thought it was because they wanted a souvenir from Carl’s Junior. It turns out that Ms. Fong was teaching her class about nutrition and the poor quality of industrial food; she showed them the “Super-Size Me” movie and had them read Michael Pollan and “Fast-Food Nation.” “Start them young, and for some of them, it’s really made them change their eating habits. You know, some 5th grade girls already have their periods, because of the hormones in meat make them mature sooner!” she said. The kids were taking the pamphlets because they wanted a real-life example to apply to what they’d been learning.

BACK TO POST [29] Tell me something new already. Even today, I am easily irritated by people repeating things I’ve heard before or already know. The line from “Wall Street”, when Gordon Gecko says, “Come on pal, tell me something I don’t know, it’s my birthday. Surprise me.” — could have been mine.

BACK TO POST [30] The next day, I was pointedly focused on Josh to drink whenever we had a water break. He seemed resigned to my proddings with good grace.

BACK TO POST [31] Doug tried to pick up Chinese phrases from the rest of the kids. The twins, with a slightly malicious streak, would speak Cantonese in front of Doug, but refused to translate for him.
“What’s 芝士菠蘿 …” Doug asked me. I couldn’t figure out the rest of the phrase he was phoneticizing. “It’s cheese pineapple . . . the rest is some phrase I don’t know. It’s a bun you get in Chinese bakeries, but there’s no actual pineapple in it.” The twins refused to repeat the entire phrase, so it was probably something cheeky.

I had already startled the twins once, when I heard them say 死八婆. “Watch the language!” I warned them. I get sneaky little kicks out of surprising people who don’t think I understand anything but English!

BACK TO POST [32] Later I would feel a bit foolish for having told him the story. Kids either remember everything you tell them, or nothing. I crossed my fingers for the latter.

BACK TO POST [33] In yet another parallel universe, I would have gone K through 12th grade entirely in El Cerrito. I did go to El Cerrito HS for the last two years of high school, where my best friend Christina. . . was a Chinese-American girl who had gone from K through 12th grade in El Cerrito. I always marveled that she was my karmic doppelgänger: what I might have become. On Christina’s part, she would have missed out on some unconventional outings if she hadn’t been friends with the me I was. She’s currently a 5th grade teacher.

BACK TO POST [34] I go hiking a lot with my mom. As we start off from the trail head, she’ll start looking for downed branches that would make good walking sticks — even if she’s got a retractable hiking stick. Half the time she’ll forget her hiking stick at home — on purpose, I suspect. It’s her fixation, this perpetual quest for the perfect walking stick. She finds one and picks it up, but still keeps her eyes peeled in case she spots a better one. The old will be tossed out, to be replaced by the new, in quick succession. For her, it’s the best part of hiking.

She likes it even better when we hike along beaches or rocky creeks — she loves looking for rocks. “Look at how pretty this one is! And see this one, the shape is just like a gourd,” — she has to show off every single one of them to someone. When I go hiking with my mom, I always have to slow down and periodically look back, checking that I haven’t lost her.

Mom used to take the rocks she collected home with her (I think half of Moonstone Beach ended up around her fireplace and mantelpiece, after a road-trip down Highway 1). As an enlightened spoil-sport, I’ve been reminding her that she’s not supposed to take any thing away from the parks and beaches. “If you bring all those rocks, they’ll weigh down my car and ruin my fuel efficiency!”

So, she’s been good about leaving rocks back in place, although she’ll half-grumble at me preemptively. “OK, OK, I’m just looking. I’m not taking anything because I know you’ll scold me.” She’ll carry her finds for a few miles: simply owning them for the duration of the hike is enough to satisfy her acquisitiveness.

BACK TO POST [35] My cousin Tim (there’s a real Tim!) and I were traveling in India, where pushy street vendors were constantly harassing us. Tim got very tired of it, and developed a counter-attack. “No, I don’t want to buy your postcards, but how about I’ll sell you this for 5 rupees instead?” He’d hold up a soda bottle cap or rock he’d picked up from the ground in front of the vendor’s face. Most of them would be surprised enough that they’d back off. We’d have a moment’s peace until the next vendor approached us.

BACK TO POST [36] I wonder what idiom parents said to their kids, before the days of Edison and victrolas? Do today’s kids even know what a compact disc is?

BACK TO POST [37] My other conspiracy theory is that toy marketing has stifled kids’ imaginations. Recently, I was talking to my five-year old nephew about his cherry-picker truck made of Lego. “You could make a Lego cherry tree, and then use your truck to pick the cherries on the top branches,” I suggested
“I can’t make a Lego cherry tree,” he replied solemnly.
“Is that because you don’t have enough Lego parts to make a cherry tree, or because there’s not a Lego cherry tree set?”
He thought for a moment, “Because there’s no set. I can only make things in Lego sets.”
Damn you, Lego! You’ve completely betrayed your original philosophy of stimulating children’s creativity. You’re boxing-in the minds of today’s children with your boxed sets. I’m buying my nephew a Barbie doll for Christmas.

BACK TO POST [38] And like many adults, the kid would often review photos on their digital cameras, the only electronic gadget they were allowed to bring.

BACK TO POST [39] Afterwards I thought of a better smart-aleck reply: “For ironing clothes.” Esprit d’escalier!

Chaperoning 5th Grade Science Camp at Yosemite: Part 2 of 4

Yosemite 17 falls

Fourteen of the 17 Falls

THE KIDS CAME UP WITH “17 Falls” for our trail group name. There were 14 kids and 3 adults, and the falls referred to waterfalls we saw in Yosemite, or the tumbles/spills we might take. I stuck to hollering ‘Trail Group 3’ whenever we had to gather them round for counting off, to ensure no one was missing. [11] The kids were paired as buddies, mainly for safety, to ensure no kid ever went off by themself; as well as cabin assignments. Another trail group named themselves ‘Cheap Squad.’ Every time we leapfrogged passed them on the Yosemite Falls hike, our kids would yell “Cheap! Cheap!” at them.

OUR TRAIL GROUP ONLY HAD FOUR GIRLS: Anne and Mathilda, Lizzie and Cindy. They were all housed in the same cabin, close to mine. On the second night at camp, they all came up to me after dinner.
“We’ve locked both our keys inside the cabin!” they chorused.
“How is that even possible? You’re not supposed to be able to remove the key without locking the door from outside!”
“Well, when we slammed the door, it locked, and our keys were inside.”
We were in a hurry to go meet with the rest of our group for the night sky/star gazing activity, so I asked them if they had enough warm clothes on them; we would deal with the cabin keys after we came back.

When we got back, the girls waited in my cabin, while Mr. Fong went to the key office. It turned out the girls’ cabin, along with the neighboring one, were unique in having door knobs with push button locks. To top it off, their door wasn’t hung straight, so you had to really slam hard to close it properly. It was possible to lock your keys inside the cabins after all.

I hospitably sat my visitors on the edge of the unoccupied bed, and piled blue wool blankets over them. Instead of a dreary wait, hanging out in the chaperone’s cabin seemed to be an unexpected treat for the girls.
“Who else is in this cabin with you?”
“Ms. Wendy. She’s actually my mom.” Mom had gone out to shower.
“Oooh,” their eyes widened. “Was she the one who said I didn’t have enough layers on and I might get cold?” asked Mathilda.
Cozily bundled up, we settled in to dish. The boys were so awful, always making scary noises outside their cabin. The girls had put up bedsheets to cover the windows to prevent Peeping Tom boys from taking photos of inside their cabin. We talked about lip balm. Cindy highly recommended her sparkly razzmatazz-berry-flavored unguent that came in a fuchsia-lavender plastic egg —in an earthquake, it doubled as an MRE. I used the whatever freebies they hand out at street fair outreach tables.
After the lip balm talk was exhausted, the girls looked around the room in appraisal. “Everything you have is from REI,” they pronounced with faint disappointment. [12] My roommate’s glamour [13] made up for it: Mom’s neon pink cell phone, the little red iPod shuffle that lullabied her to sleep were oohed and aahed over.

“It’s so funny, I’d forgotten how kids are so observant and up front about checking out people’s stuff,” I told Mom later, when it was just the two of us in the cabin.

Mom and I have gone on a lot of camping trips together. But this time it was ‘work’, rather than vacation. And I was happy that for once, I was not the organizer for the trip. Since Mom and I spent our days apart with different trail groups, so we only got to compare notes at night. This was Mom’s first time chaperoning at Yosemite, so I would be the one showing her some of the ropes, even though she’d been a principal/teacher before. I worried about her climbing through Spider Cave.

I told her about the girls’ visit in our cabin, and what they had said about using bedsheets to cover their windows.
“Boys don’t really do that, do they?” said Mom incredulously.
“Mom, don’t you know how naughty and crude boys can be?” I asked, equally incredulous that she didn’t know, even though she’d been an elementary school principal. [14]

My trail group had a majority of boys, which was more work to chaperone than her group, which was mostly girls. Plus Mr. MacLeod was their classroom teacher. “It’s easier for you,” I said.
“Not really,” Mom retorted.

Mom’s trail group had a trainee naturalist. “Her name is Shavi? Shabi? Something like that.” Mom told me. “Ask her if she’s named after Xabi Alonso the Spanish footballer, or Xavi Hernandez, the other Spanish footballer.” I joked. [15] Turned out her name was short for Zavijava which meant “September”.

Zavi was a rookie who had only started working three weeks ago in Yosemite. She probably got assigned to them because Mr. MacLeod was an old hand at science camp. So far, Mom didn’t think much of Zavi. “If I were the principal, I’d flunk her!” [16]

Zavi’s activities were stultifying, mostly seat work that happened to be in an outdoor setting. She did most of the talking, giving little airtime to the kids to speak, not noticing when the kids got fidgety from tedium.
“Well, kids always get fidgety.”
“Even I was getting fidgety.”

For one of the exercises where the kids had to write something and read it out loud to the group. Zavi video-recorded each kid, reviewed it and then said: “Oh, that didn’t come out very well. Read it again, so I can get a better clip.”
“She’s just doing this to pad her resume,” Mom said indignantly.

Most egregious, in Mom’s eyes, was how cavalier Zavi had been when they hiked the Yosemite Falls trail. “She never looked back to check the kids. There were six kids who fell. Six! She didn’t stop, she’d just call out casually ‘Are you OK?’, and keep going.”
“Kids are resilient.”
“When I go hiking with you, you’re always checking on and fussing over me when I slip and asking ‘Mom are you OK?’”
“Well, you’re my mother.”

Even if Mom might have been overly nit-picky, I started to feel sorry for the kids in her group. They probably weren’t going to get as much out of this trip, both in education and fun, as the other kids with more seasoned naturalists, like ours.

NATURALISTS AND THE DAILY ROUTINE AT CAMP
Nature Bridge (formerly Yosemite Institute) is a non-profit educational organization that puts on the science camp programs. They provide the ‘naturalists’ (or ‘educator’) for the ‘trail groups’ – the science camp classes. Nature Bridge also helps coordinates the logistics of lodging and meals. Most of the students they get are middle/junior/high schoolers; 5th grade is the youngest level they cover.

The naturalist is like a cross between teacher and camp counselor. She (most of them are women) leads the ‘activities’ (teaching and games), and provides the materials. She has lead authority over the trail group of a dozen students. She also manages the discipline, so good naturalists are the ones who are also savvy at dealing with children. There are usually one or two chaperones per trail group, for support.

Naturalists create their own activities and materials for whatever content they are asked to teach, based on the school-teachers’ advance requests. It’s a mix of many elements: environmental awareness, geology, Indian history, botany, concepts of scientific principles (hypotheses, testing, conclusions), safety (what to do in case of a rockfall), conservation stewardship, discipline, communication, learning to pay attention, respect, leadership, physical challenges and overcoming fears — it’s a densely-packed curriculum that unfolds in an ambulating outdoor classroom, as the trail groups roam from place to place through Yosemite Valley, mostly on foot.

Scheduling is complex, fixed and fluid. The school-wide activities such as breakfast, dinner and the evening programs are firmly scheduled. Between breakfast and dinner, when the trail groups each go on their own way, it’s more flexible. Lunch happens when we’re hungry and at a good picnic spot. For some site-specific activities, like Spider Cave, or story-telling at the museum, there are timed slots that the naturalists arrange amongst themselves. There is also a general spread by time and day, i.e. some trail groups will do the challenge hike to Vernal Falls, others to Yosemite Falls. Other than that, it’s flexible and on the fly, especially if the group needs to get somewhere by the free/public Valley Shuttle. They run every 20 minutes, and can fit at most two trail groups at a time. One time, when Jenna spotted three other trail groups at the shuttle stop, she simply had the kids play a hackey-sack game to pass time while we waited for the subsequent shuttle.

The naturalists have a very challenging job, in juggling so many moving parts. Yet it’s a competitive and coveted position, in part because it is at Yosemite. For the most part, they are young, knowledgeable, energetic, and enthusiastic about the outdoors. Many of them have worked with Nature Bridge programs at other locations, before applying and getting accepted to Yosemite. Some are off-season National Park Service rangers.

It always seems to be a fine dance for chaperones to figure out how much to step up to the plate, or avoid stepping on the naturalist’s toes. Communicating expectations, and checking-in with each other throughout the day works really well. After all, we all have the kids’ best interests at heart. And as chaperones, we don’t want the kids to give a bad impression of their school, and hope the naturalist doesn’t think us too incompetent. Wayland, Jenna and I got along pretty well — we found out we all went to Cal, albeit in very different eras.

Yosemite Fall and Half Dome

From Yosemite Falls to Half Dome

IDEALLY, CHAPERONES SHOULD BE CO-ED PAIRS, just like homeless census takers. When there are gender-sensitive issues like girls on their periods, girls may feel more comfortable asking a woman, and boys likewise talking to a man. It worked out well with our trail group. Wayland got stuck with a boy’s bear chasing gone awry. [17] I got to explain lactation.

I don’t suppose the National Geographic magazine is where kids get their first look at bare-breasted women anymore. Where then? At the Yosemite Visitor Center Museum. We were looking around, while waiting for Julia Parker. One of the exhibits was a life-sized diorama of an Indian mother and child sitting outside their bark hut.

“Eww . . . look at that woman, she’s naked and that baby is sucking on her…” Marcus and Timothy exclaimed in disgust. It was genuine surprise — they weren’t faking outrage simply to embarrass a grown-up.
“Well, how else do you think the Indians fed their babies? There was no powder formula back then. Besides mother’s milk is better for babies than formula, it’s got more nutrients. For all you know, maybe your mothers breast-fed you when you were babies.”

The looks of abject horror on the boys’ faces were priceless.

CHASING COYOTES AND BEARS
Our group was lucky to see real coyotes (three, alive) and bear (one, skinned). More often, we ‘chased’ them. Chasing coyotes (number 1) [18] and bears (number 2) are euphemisms for going to the toilet in nature. It’s also called ‘using the facilitrees’.

It was the first and foremost concept they cover at science camp. Both the naturalists who lead my trail groups in two years happened to be women, and both were good with matter-of-fact explanations. After the naturalists gave the general overview (you always have to go with a buddy), they sent the boys off on their first coyote (or wild goose) chase. Then she would discuss the feminine-specific details with just the girls. It does take more finesse and effort for girls to go in the woods. It’s more challenging to find locations that are well screened and comfortable enough. It was very helpful to have someone to explain squatting, width of the feet apart, type of floor surface, downslope angle, etc, etc, rather than learn through trial and error.

Above all, it helps kids get over their inhibitions of going in the woods. Most people are only used to built restrooms, with flushing toilets and sinks for washing hands. It’s better that you go when you need to go, whenever/wherever you are in nature, [19] rather than hold it in and wait (too long) before you can find a flush toilet in civilization. There are pit toilets around Yosemite Valley, but they can smell awful. Most kids preferred chasing coyotes instead.
Some children are paranoid, and hold it in, waiting to get home to use the toilet. They think that public toilets are dirty. It’s more common with girls, but there are boys with the same hang-up. I tend to blame this on parental misguidance. [20]

At science camp, you can be outdoors for 6-8 hours before you can get to a real toilet — it’s not sustainable to hold it that long. Holding number two in is not a healthy practice — it can lead to constipation, hemorrhoids and a few other problems. Holding urine in is not a healthy practice either — it can lead to a weakened bladder and urinary tract infections in the long term. But what’s worse is when people do not drink enough water when outside of the home, simply to avoid having to go to bathroom.

This human body needs constant hydration, especially when active, as our trail group was. It was unseasonably warm and sunny during our week in Yosemite. Drinking water will wash out the toxins and metabolic waste from your body. You can’t count on sweating alone to get rid of the accumulated waste, you should be drinking enough to urinate. [21] Dehydration symptoms include nosebleeds, headaches, tiredness, etc — all of which are preventable by drinking enough water.

OFF-DUTY? NEVER QUITE
“Yosemite is almost over,” the kids said wistfully on Wednesday. They enjoyed being at science camp, yet they also longed for home — both their families and the familiarities. Lizzie said she missed TV. She also missed mangoes, her favorite fruit, and mango chicken, which her father made for her.

At Yosemite, time moves too fast and too slow, never at an objective speed. There’s so much going on that the day is over before you know it. At the same time, there’s 緊張 tension of constant responsibility for someone else’s flesh-and-blood 心肝 from breakfast to bed-time. It feels like an egg-and-spoon marathon with a full dozen of eggs. Time doesn’t pass quickly enough for me to reach the end without any cracked eggs. Only then can I truly exhale, but to what avail at Yosemite?

Like Lizzie, I missed TV too (I was going to miss the Project Runway All Stars Finale!) — but I missed other grown-up privileges more.

There is no wifi, internet access or cellular coverage (unless you have 4G, so no email monitoring, nor Instagram updates of my cousin’s meals.) [22]

There is no alcohol; it’s a Nature Bridge program policy. I concur entirely with its soundness; even while off-duty we should be prepared to deal with any emergencies soberly. But sometimes, a beer would be very nice. Even the idea that I could have a beer might be enough.

There is no ‘lounge’: In the real world, that would be a bar. Here, I would settle for a cafe. There’s no food/beverage outlet where you could have a latte and hang out. [23] There isn’t anywhere to chill, except in one’s cabin (which is small, and dim) or outdoors (which is cold.)

All this leaves you with one permitted indulgence at Yosemite: hot showers. To heck with the drought, I took extravagantly long, excessively wasteful hot showers every night. The perk for chaperones is that instead of using the cramped and crowded shower house close to our tent-cabins, we sneak off to the Curry Village shower house that’s attached to the swimming pool. It’s a secret we don’t tell the kids about. It’s the one amenity Ms. Fong gleefully touts at each chaperone orientation meeting. It is a longer walk away, but worth it for the relative serenity, spaciousness — and the granite countertops. You never have to wait for a cubicle. In the summer, I think you have to pay $5 to use it; but in the winter you can walk right in.

The pool shower house also serves as a de facto women’s faculty lounge. The open area with benches, bright lights and heating combine to make it conducive to lingering. Some of adults would walk over together, and/or you would run into others inside and stay on to chit-chat — it was very convivial.

I’m not really complaining, I knew exactly what I was signing up for as a chaperone. Besides, the teachers have it harder — not only do they have to be teachers, but they also have to be the parents. While they don’t have to worry about lesson plans and homework, they’re on duty day and night, taking on homesickness, fish-out-of-water behaviors, prescription medications, lost items, and troubleshooting while in a national park.
When the girls lost a cabin key for the second time, they didn’t tell Mr. Fong.
“Why not?”
“He was in a bad mood.” With a constant stream of homesick students calling home on his phone, missing keys, and other student disruptions every night, Mr. Fong was entitled to a bout of grouchiness.

FIRST OVERNIGHT TRIPS WITHOUT YOUR FAMILY
Going to one’s first science camp in elementary school (in 4th, 5th or 6th grade) is a rite of passage. [24] It’s usually the first time kids have been away from home without their parents or family. The challenges are homesickness, [25] and having to take responsibility for themselves (“at home, mom squeezes the toothpaste for me.”) The perks are the fun of hanging out with your classmates day and night, and being able to make choices for yourself. You don’t have to shower if you don’t want to. You can eat whatever you like.

Terry was in his pajamas, sitting up in his bed when I walked past his cabin on my way to go brush my teeth. Terry was a pint-sized boy with a disproportionate bushel of charm. During “Two Truths and a Lie,” he claimed to have three ex-girlfriends — which the rest of the kids could name. While hiking, he was always coming up with Yosemite-themed variations of “Ninety-Nine bottles of Beer On the Wall.”
“Ms. Celia!” he called out when he saw me.
“Yes?”
“I’m itchy.”
“Have you taken a shower since you got here?” It was the third night at camp
“No,” he replied cheerily.

In Calvin and Hobbes and other cartoons, kids don’t like to take baths. Is this true in real life? I don’t know. [26] It’s hard for me to understand why kids don’t want to shower after traipsing around in the outdoors all day. Maybe they can’t be bothered to carry their toiletries, towels and clothes back and forth to the shower house. Maybe they think they will get cooties from the showers stalls. Maybe they have so much fun hanging out and playing, they don’t have time to go shower. Oh well. Not showering for a few days won’t kill you, and prepares you for future backpacking trips where you might go for longer without washing, if you don’t want to brave the ice cold waters of some alpine lake.

CALVIN & HOBBES
Marcus was the tallest of the kids in our group. He had the moody reluctance and dragging gait of an adolescent; he could have been the sixth member of “The Breakfast Club.” (Or an amalgamation of the original five).

At the same time, he was inattentive below his years, often needing to be prodded to follow directions. When we stopped for water breaks, he would fiddle around. Just as we were about to resume, he would take out his water bottle, which meant extra delay in starting up.

During the hikes, he constantly dawdled behind. But he also liked engaging with Wayland or I, talking with whichever chaperone sweeper was at the rear. He did quirky things for attention. “Look!” — he’d show you a photo of roast ducks hanging in a window on his camera, several times day. The gesture seemed to reassure him that people knew he was present.

One day, Marcus started telling me about a tiger and a boy and their adventures. When I said, “Wait, aren’t you talking about Calvin and Hobbes? He tries to eat enough boxes of Sugar Bombs cereal to collect the box tops for a beanie . . .” I’d made a friend for life (or at least until Friday.) It turned out Marcus had “Revenge of the Baby Sat” memorized backwards, forwards, sideways and upside-down. He was very happy to find someone who knew Calvin and Hobbes (he pronounced it ‘hobbies’, I always thought it was ‘hobs’) almost as well as he did. After that, he’d often come up and start telling me the plots of each story, almost reciting it line by line. “Remember when Calvin and his parents go camping and ….? Remember the one where Calvin’s house gets broken into and he gets worried that Hobbes is stolen …”

It seemed incongruous that a boy with the voice of a teenager should be so obsessed with the adventures of a first-grader and his stuffed toy tiger. But Calvin and Hobbes has a universal appeal, as cosy as Linus’ security blanket, whether you’re an off-keel adolescent or an almost-over-the-hill slacker.

I asked him if he ever tried drawing his own cartoons, or if he’d read all the Calvin & Hobbes, and when he said no. I told him I had the whole collection, and would get them to him. I needed to downsize my bookcase anyway, and sought appreciative homes for my books.

On the last day, before we boarded the bus at the Ahwahnee shuttle stop, we had told the kids to put their backpacks in front of them, so they wouldn’t inadvertently whack someone with their back. When we got on board, Marcus’ backpack was on his back, and almost hit a seated passenger (who, of course, was the girl who sustained a near-concussion the previous day). I ticked him off, reminding him it was a safety issue, and we had reminded everyone before we boarded the bus. He lashed out in a defensive burst, “So it’s my fault … I suppose you’re mad at me now and you’re not going to give me the Calvin and Hobbes books!”

I was neither surprised nor upset by his outburst. Still, I sighed inwardly. I recalled my own adolescence — hyper-sensitive and emotional reactions amplified. It had been an awfully trying time. I had no intention of breaking my word. I had the sense that if a grown-up promised Marcus something, and then broke that promise, it would make him resent adults for their inconsistencies. I wasn’t about to be that flaky adult that made him lose faith in all adults.

FOOD
The food at Camp Curry is better than you’d expected for a facility geared towards mass feedings, especially one that’s run by DNC, the Yosemite concessionaire. [27] The cooks are good— they even whipped up a delicious vegan chocolate and fruit pudding for Peggy Harris, a chaperone, on her birthday with a day’s notice. The menus were nourishing, well balanced and there was always some sort of chocolate desert. Some of the chaperones noted that the selection was more limited than the previous year.

The all-American buffet is a novelty for (1) those kids who mostly eat their parents’ native foods at home, and (2) for all the kids, who get to eat as much or as little as they like of anything.

It was hilarious how ‘extreme’ kids eat when left on their own. I saw one kid painstakingly pick out broccoli bits from a vegetable medley. Some kids filled their plates with croutons and little else. Towers of pancakes and waffles drenched in syrup. Heaping bowls of Froot Loops swimming in milk. Ranch dressing and some salad. Macaroni and cheese. I saw one small girl with a large pile of breakfast sausages on her plate; I think she actually finished them all. At 4th grade science camp last year, there was a challenge for the whole camp against food waste, to take no more than you could finish. The ‘discards’ were collected and measured after each meal. I think/hope that the kids retained that lesson on their own this year at Yosemite.

BACK TO POST [11] Wayland and I made 17 Falls count off religiously. The one time we didn’t was naturally the time we almost left without Peter on the shuttle bus.

BACK TO POST [12] On another night, the girls saw me wearing my glasses, and went Anna Wintour on me. “Those glasses don’t look good on you. . . take them off . . . uh huh, you look better without them.”

BACK TO POST [13] On bus back to Oakland, a girl sitting across the aisle from us asked if the woman sitting next to me was my mom. I said yes. “She’s pretty!” Anaya declared. Mom was sound asleep. I was flattered for Mom, amused for both of us, and wryly bemused for me.

BACK TO POST [14] Mom grew up with mostly girls. I spent childhood vacations with a half-dozen boy cousins around my age. At our grandmother’s house, those punks would futilely try to peek through the ventilation slats in the bathroom door whenever I was inside.

BACK TO POST [15] Spain won the 2010 World Cup.

BACK TO POST [16] As a school principal, you get to hire and pink-slip teachers, not pass or flunk them like students. This was Mom’s shorthand for “I would pink-slip her.”

BACK TO POST [17] For his heroic performance of duty (and as a token of my everlasting relief), I told Wayland I’d buy him a beer after we got back.

BACK TO POST [18] The Thai slang for guys chasing coyotes is ‘shooting rabbits.’ (ยิงกระต่าย)

BACK TO POST [19] Most backcountry rules require it to be at least 200 feet from a water source/trail/campsite.

BACK TO POST [20] The earliest — and only — camping advice I ever got from Mom was about toilets. I was about four. We were camping with at some campground where the toilet seats were swarming with ladybugs. (Which is pretty weird — I’ve never seen ladybugs in bathrooms anywhere else.) “Don’t be scared,” Mom reassured me. “Ladybugs are good bugs. They don’t hurt us.” I’ve never worried about using outdoor toilets since.

BACK TO POST [21] Years ago at Burning Man, there was a memorable, pithy and effective “Piss Clear” PSA campaign. The message was you should drink enough water such that your urine is dilute and clear, rather than concentrated and dark; that’s how to tell you’re not dehydrated.

BACK TO POST [22] One time when I snagged internet access that week, I was floored to find out New York Times columnist David Carr had suddenly died.

BACK TO POST [23] Because it’s winter/weekday, visitor amenities are limited. At Camp Curry, there’s the general store that sells coffee and tea in to-go cups but that’s about it. The dining hall is only open at breakfast and dinner.

BACK TO POST [24] Decades after the fact, Joe’s sister Linda still holds a grudge against Joe for making her miss out on her 6th grade camping trip — he gave her chicken pox. Her mom had crocheted her a beautiful scarf and hat set to keep warm on the trip. To this day she still has never used them, they’re in pristine condition.

BACK TO POST [25] I can’t remember ever being homesick as a child. My first trip without parents was with my aunt and cousin — I was more excited about going to Hong Kong and meeting my grandmother for the first time, than anything else. The first time I traveled solo, I did get homesick, but differently.

BACK TO POST [26] I grew up in Thailand, where it is hot and muggy. Everyone there showers two or three times a day. The idea of not wanting to shower would be unfathomable.

BACK TO POST [27] There was a huge wrinkle to dinner and lunch at Yosemite this time; for two of the four days we had to bus over to the Yosemite Lodge ‘Food Court’. (DNC had rented out the Camo Curry Dining Hall to a higher bidder for two days.) The space was more cramped, the food selection was more limited, and simply not as tasty. Rather than self-serve, it was dished out by the cafeteria workers (no picking broccoli bits out of the vegetable medley!) The meal hall monitors made everyone fill up every single seat (no ‘skipsies’), so you had to queue up for food with the seating companions you wanted. The only thing I liked about dining at Yosemite Lodge was that they had Tapatio hot sauce.

Chaperoning 5th Grade Science Camp at Yosemite: Part 1 of 4

I went on the Lincoln School 5th Grade Science Camp as an adult chaperone for the second time. Last year was my first time— I was available, and as always I was interested in new experiences. I’d never chaperoned a multi-day school field trip before. It turned out to be fun and rewarding.

I had thought it would be a one-off thing. But one year later, I was still idle, and my pre-requisite clearances — TB test and Livescan review — still had remaining shelf-life. So at the last minute, I signed up for a second tour of duty. There was another plus: Mom had already signed up as a chaperone, for her first time.

Lincoln Elementary School is located in Oakland Chinatown.  The institution has been there for about a hundred years, with a predominantly Chinese-American/Asian student population. It currently runs kindergarten through 5th grade.

The blue and white main building is twice a landmark in my memory. When I was in pre-school nearby, we would occasionally walk to Lincoln School for activities. The one I liked most was inside the multi-purpose room, where we flapped a giant nylon parachute madly up and down, and then ran under its billowing roof in giddy exhilaration.

Much, much later, my mom served as the principal of Lincoln School, in the late 1990’s. As I was working in downtown Oakland at the time, I would occasionally walk over to visit her there. [1] As a 4 year-old, I could have never imagined that one day, my mother would be the principal of the school.  That was probably a good thing; I would have been so proud and insufferably boastful about it.

About ten years ago, there was a push to expose Lincoln School kids to environment science and the great outdoors.  Living in densely urban Oakland, science camp would be the first time most kids encountered nature on its own turf.  The inception of 5th Grade Science Camp was spearheaded by three 5th grade teachers: Belinda Fong, Derek MacLeod and Becky Wong. [2] By dint of hard work, and a stroke of fate, an endowment foundation was set up with a considerable bequest from Nancy J. Lee to fund the annual science camp for 5th graders. LEAAF (Lincoln Environmental Education and Arts Fund) has helped send roughly 100 Lincoln 5th graders each year to camp at at sites such as Angel Island, Marin Headlands, Westminster Woods, and Yosemite National Park.

Ms. Fong and Mr. MacLeod are still the lead organizers for the science camp program. Becky is retired, but still heavily involved, especially with LEAAF. (Amongst other things, Becky is a genius at chaperone recruitment.) Nowadays, there are four fifth-grade classes taught by Mr. MacLeod, Ms. Fong, Rob Fong (unrelated?) and Brooke Guinney. It is a lot of work on top of a teacher’s normal workload. They start organizing for next year’s camp right after they get back from this year.

Lincoln is a Title I school, which means it is considered low-income and receives state and federal funding. The actual cost per child (including transportation) is around $500 for the week-long camp. Parents are asked to donate $175 per child to help with expenses, but it is not mandatory. (Title I schools cannot require fees.) Generally, parents donate what they can.

GETTING CHAPERONES

For 100 students, there needs to be about 10-15 chaperones. (It breaks down to roughly 2 chaperones per trail group of 12-14 kids.) Getting enough chaperones for science camp is a challenge. Parents — the most likely and abundant pool — are not allowed to chaperone [3], [4]. “Too many parents wanted to come, especially to Yosemite, making it difficult to choose. And then most of the parent chaperones weren’t very effective, they’d just be standing around.” one teacher told me.  There’s also the time commitment: science camp is 4-5 days out of town; it’s not simply taking kids on BART to the museum for an afternoon.  If you didn’t have a kid at Lincoln, you’d have little motivation to go. So most chaperones are retirees. [5]

Most of the chaperones are current and former teachers/principals – most of them have been faithfully chaperoning for years. Then there are the FOBs (Friends of Becky), people Becky met through her qi going class, dance class, etc. In fact that’s how I got roped in last year — I got to know Becky through Mom; we had gone on hiking trips in Oregon and Grand Canyon a few years ago.

One chaperone who was neither a professional educator nor an FOB was Wayland Lew.

Last year, when I saw Wayland Lew’s name on the chaperones list, I emailed him. “Are you chaperoning the Yosemite trip for Lincoln School in late January? I saw your name on the list. Or maybe there’s another Wayland Lew in the Bay Area.”

He replied mock-gradiosely: “There can only be one Wayland Lew in the Bay Area!  Yes, I’m chaperoning.”

Wayland — who looks like Papa Noël-in-training — and I had worked together at a transit agency a few years ago. We got along very well together, because we liked to talk about travel, and had kept in touch after we left the agency. Coincidentally, neither of us had children. I was surprised that he was volunteering without an apparent connection to Lincoln (he had grown up in San Francisco Chinatown), but I was also not surprised. He had often talked about doing volunteer work with kids when he retired.

2015-02-11_09-15-05_996

Wayland – my co-chaperone

As it turned out, Frances Joe, the counselor at Lincoln, was his kindergarten classmate, and had got him signed up. Wayland had signed up again this year, and we were both assigned to the Trail Group 3. I was glad to be co-chaperoning with my former colleague; Wayland was practical, meticulous and droll.

It also felt like a promotion; all the rookie chaperones were paired with current or former teachers. (Even Mom was paired with Mr. MacLeod.) Neither Wayland nor I had ever been teachers, but we must have done well enough last year to now be entrusted with the care and keep of 14 ten-year olds.

Wayland and I each had a secret weapon this year.  The week before camp, Wayland had visited Lincoln School to familiarize with some of the kids in our trail group, and got additional notes from Frances on the kids. I didn’t look at those notes until after the second day of camp, and was struck by how spot-on Frances’ assessments were. [6] I had also chaperoned the last year’s 4th grade camp, so I was familiar with some faces, names, and personalities of this year’s 5th graders in my trail group.

There was one buddy pair in our trail group that were identical twins: Aidan was in Ms. Guinney’s class; Adrian was in Ms. Fong’s. With such similar-sounding names, it was hard to remember who was who when you addressed them. [7]  Aidan and Adrian had similar haircuts and the same clothes, often wearing similar outfits on the same day.  On the first day, Jenna (our trail group naturalist) and I had figured out that the one wearing Air Jordans was Adrian; a quick glance at his feet would identify him. The next day, to our chagrin, both Adrian and Aidan wore the same sneakers. Since the kids had name tags on their backpacks, we often tried to read those, but most of the time they were obscured by being flipped over.

Of the kids in this year’s trail group, I had known Anne, Mathilda and Harold from my 4th grade camp groups. Anne and Mathilda were the oddest-looking of the buddies, one tall, one short, both equally dependable. Anne was quiet. Mathilda talked more, but what she had to say was always very thoughtful.

Harold had been one of the worst disruptors in my group last year. He talked a lot, paid little attention, and had frequently claimed “I need use the facilitree” as an excuse to go goof off during the outdoor class activities. I wondered if he was like that in school as well, constantly asking to use the bathroom pass.  But to my surprise, he had matured since last year, and was actually helpful in reining his buddy Liam, who turned out to be the biggest handful. As it turned out, we only had Liam and Harold for a day before we traded them in. It boiled down to a cabin key.

CABIN KEYS
At Yosemite Science Camp, we stayed in the tent-cabins in one section of Camp Curry.  Each cabin either housed 4 kids, or 1-3 adults. The wood-framed cabins were walled with thick plastic tarps. Inside each there was a wall heater, an electric light, and an electric outlet.  They also came with towels, bedsheets and blankets for the camp beds, which few people used. It was more deluxe than tent camping. Outside each cabin was a bear-proof locker for storing ‘smellies’ – food and toiletries that might attract bears and other animals.

There was a large communal shower house/toilets about 2 minute’s walk away.

The adults were interspersed amongst the kids.  If any kid needed to go to the bathroom after 10 PM, they were supposed to go knock on an chaperone’s door (preferably a classroom teacher) to let them know. Other times, kids were supposed to go the bathroom with their buddy. Ms. Fong had made name signs for posting on each cabin door, so it was easy to find people.

The Camp Curry cabins each had a heavy padlock for the door, which came with two keys.  You could only remove the key from the padlock when it was in the locked/closed position, so you couldn’t lock your key inside. The keys had no holes in them, so you couldn’t thread them onto a key chain for safe-keeping — they were frequently misplaced.  The camp managers claimed that with a hole in the key, people would frequently forget to return their keys before leaving camp. We wondered why they didn’t simply charge a hefty key deposit, say $20, to motivate people to return the keys.  Replacement keys were readily available from the front office, for only $3!

Ever practical and resourceful, Becky had made dozens of neck pouches out of fuzzy fleece in which to carry the keys.  Each buddy pair would decide which of the two would keep the key pouch.  This reduced the rate of lost keys somewhat.

WAYLAND HAD HAD A TOUGHER DAY THAN I. While it was technically the second day of camp, it was the first full day of nature activities (the first day of camp was mostly spent in transit on the bus.) We had walked around extensively, from El Capitan Meadow to Swinging Bridge and back to Camp Curry. Jenna, as the naturalist, was always in the lead;  I hung out in the middle of the pack, with Wayland at the end as the sweep.  Liam, the worst kid in our group, was mostly at the back, so Wayland had borne the brunt of managing him.  Francis had warned that Liam would need firm boundaries, and be difficult to handle. She was right.

“I think we should consider having Liam go to Mr. Fong’s group,” Wayland said grimly when the kids had swarmed off to free time before dinner. He looked beat. Wayland wasn’t the type to give up easily, so it had to be serious.  Having been rather insulated from Liam that day, I offered to swap spots with Wayland and be the sweep, keeping Liam close to me.  But we would also talk to Mr. Fong.

Mr. Fong — the classroom teacher for our trail group kids — was reserved and quiet, with a dry, puckish sense of humor. While Mr. Fong’s students treated him with familiarity, they did abide by him when he laid down the law.

One night, Anne had developed an allergic reaction to something. Her face was puffy and itchy. We were trying to figure out what and why.

Mr. Fong: What did you eat for dinner?
Anne: Salad. Chicken. Chocolate cake.
Mr. Fong: And you’re not allergic to any of those foods?
Anne: No.
Mr. Fong: When did you start feeling the symptoms?
Anne: After lunch, early afternoon.
Mr. Fong: Afternoon? Maybe it was the sunscreen.  Well, hey, your shirt matches your complexion now.
Anne: [Gives him an exasperated look.] You’re meeaan, Mr. Fong.

Wayland and I explained our concern to Mr. Fong at dinner: we were going into Spider Cave the next day.  Wayland wasn’t going to be able to go inside, due to his back injury.  We would be short one adult inside Spider Cave — exactly when Liam might be more disruptive and in need of more supervision.  Mr. Fong agreed with Wayland that we should swap out Liam (and Harold) for two others in his trail group. As Liam’s classroom teacher, it would be easier for Mr. Fong to manage him.

There was one snag: Mr. Fong’s trail group had already gone to Spider Cave earlier that day.  If Liam and Harold were sent to Mr. Fong’s group, they would miss out on one of the highlights of Yosemite Science Camp.

Spider Cave was formed by rockfall, a pitch dark tunnel with two ends.  It is not open to the public; the Nature Bridge program has exclusive use of it. There is no sign post; you have to know where to turn off the path to get to it.

Getting through Spider Cave involves climbing, contorting, squeezing through narrow gaps, crawling, sliding — hence the name; here’s no arachnids inside.  It’s obstacle course that takes 5-10 minutes to get from end to end — if you could see with light.  In the blind, it takes more work, not just physically, but mentally.

Last year, the kids did various activities in the lead up to Spider Cave, honing skills they would need to get through it successfully — in the dark. They each took turns guiding a blindfolded buddy for a walk in the woods, by giving them verbal directions. “Turn left a little.  Take two more steps.” They played Chinese Whispers, where kids gather in a circle and one whispers a message to their neighbor, who passes it on in turn. A successful round is when the message has been passed from the first to last kid without distortion.

When going into Spider Cave, the naturalist and the chaperone(s) each have a flashlight, and the kid in the middle is usually given an electric tea candle as a ‘security blanket’ in case there’s any panic. But the goal is to complete the course solely on the merits of kids’ cooperation, communication and coordination, without resorting to light. Towards the end of the cave, the naturalist switches on the flashlight, so kids can see what the chamber they’ve just climbed through looks like.

Even though Liam was likely to be troublesome, I felt sorry for him if he were to miss Spider Cave. Worse yet, Harold would be miss Spider Cave through no fault of his own. I was not thinking about the long-term yet, just whether we might swap Liam and Harold out after Spider Cave.

We still had the night sky/star gazing activity after dinner. I suggested I would keep a close watch on Liam (to relieve Wayland), see how that went and make a decision afterwards. I was sure Liam could be managed.

Alas, the course of true intentions never did run smooth.

Two trails groups — ours and Dynasty’s — walked together a short distance to what was previously the dumping grounds for Camp Curry. It had also been the landing site of the historic Firefall — a flat open patch of packed/hardened sand. There was relatively little night-light pollution in Yosemite, compared to the Bay Area, just a few lights from the shower house through the trees. This would be the first time most kids had seen the stars so brightly and clearly against an inky-black sky.

As the children settled to sit down in a circle under the stars, Jenna asked them to put their flashlights away, as she would be pointing out the constellations with a laser pointer.  (The kids carried flashlights after dinner, as we often walked in the dark to evening activities.)  Naturally it took a while for the kids to settle down –  a few last swings of their light sabers before they were switched off.  Liam was the last holdout.

I had positioned myself at close quarters behind him.
“Switch off your flashlight.” I whispered to him.
He did, but moments later switched it on again.
“Off!”
He did. And then it was on again.
“Switch it off!”
“I want it on.”
“Give me that. I’ll return it to you after we leave.” I hissed.
I confiscated it, and got a minute’s darkness.
Another weak beam emerged from Liam’s hands.
“What the . . ? Switch it off.”
The light snapped off. And then . . . on again.
“PUT IT away and pay attention!”
He left it on.
I got up and dragged him out of the circle.  Liam with a flashlight at star-gazing was already disastrous. Liam with two flashlights in Spider Cave would be a catastrophe.
“How many flashlights do you have!?”
“Three. Actually I lost my black one already. So I only have two left.” [8]
“Well, give me the second one now.” I grabbed it out of his hand. It resisted.
“This one is on a string around my neck.”
I groaned inwardly. In the dark, I fumbled with locating the flashlight neckstrap, which was tangled with the key pouch also hanging around his neck.
I finally liberated the flashlight, but Liam exclaimed, “I lost my key!”
The pouch was indeed empty.
“Did you have it before we got here?”
“I dunno,” he said without guile.
Now I was shrieked mutely. Had I caused the key to fall out when I pulled off the flashlight? And between him and Harold, how was it that he, and not Harold, got custody of the key! I cursed my luck.
“Can you check and see if it’s fallen in your jacket or shirt?”
He patted around. “No, it’s not on me.”
“Who else is in your cabin?”
“Terry and Peter.”
“I’ll look for the key after we’re done here. Go back and sit down.”

This was the last straw. Liam would be unanimously voted off the island. Wayland had held up for hours; I think I lasted only twenty minutes.

We got Doug and Josh for our replacements the next morning. But the matter didn’t end there.  A day later, Aidan and Adrian teased Harold for missing out on Spider Cave, and a row must have broken out.  Mr. Fong had to take them aside and give them a stern talking to. I felt bad for Harold —who had been the innocent, punished with the guilty.

Mischief abhors a vacuum. The day after Liam left our group, Tim and Josh replaced him as our most troublesome kids. Or maybe it became more obvious now that they weren’t overshadowed by Liam.

Liam ultimately redeemed himself with me.  I had brought an extra bandanna to camp; inevitably some kids hadn’t brought one from home, and would need a bandanna for a crumb-catcher.  In our group, that was Liam. On the last day of science camp, Liam made the conscientious effort to look for me to return the crumb-catcher not once, but twice.

“Hang onto it, you will still need it for today’s lunch,” I told him after breakfast, surprised at how thoughtful he was to return it without being prompted. “You can give back to me afterwards.”  Being a doubting Thomas, I’d been prepared to ‘lose’ the bandanna to any scatterbrain who didn’t bring one from home in the first place.

Later that evening back at school, in the mad frenzy of reuniting people with their luggage, and students with their parents, Liam combed through the crowd for me. He handed me the bandanna, damp from having rinsed off the jam and salsa stains. “Thank you!” I had forgotten all about it myself.

I’ve loaned things to adults who take them for granted, never bothering to remember what they’ve borrowed nor return them to me.  I was impressed by Liam’s sense of responsibility and respect for others’ belongings, especially at this young age.

CRUMB-CATCHERS
Lunches at Yosemite Science Camp are ingenious, a well-thought out set-up.  Lunch is always eaten outdoors, with hands, no cutlery, somewhere on the trail.  Each morning, when each trail group meets up with the naturalist, she or he will have a big grocery tote with the food. (There are no drinks, everyone drinks water.) The menu theme varies: PB&J, Italian, Mexican, Mediterranean, etc.  The ingredients come in bagged packages. Bread, pita or tortillas for the starch.  Bags of finger vegetables: cherry tomatoes, carrot or celery sticks, cucumber slices, black olives. Spreads: sunflower-seed ‘nut’ butter (least likely to trigger allergies), jam, hummus, guacamole, tomato sauce, salsa, refried beans. (The only cutlery are the wooden tongue depressor spreaders.) Protein: pepperoni or salami slices, cheese.  And for a realistically balanced diet, there’s also salty and sweet snacks like cheese doodles, pretzel sticks, chips, and cookies.

The bags of food are distributed to spread the burden: each kid takes one bag to carry in their backpack for the morning.

Whenever we break for lunch, the entire group sits down in a circle. Each kid brings out their water bottle and lays out their bandanna as their lunch plate – called “crumb-catcher.” [9] It makes for a colorful and cheerful sight, quilt squares of different hues and patterns.

Yosemite crumbcatchers

Crumb-catchers – Mr. Fong is handing out the ‘pizzas’

Staying seated, the kids then take out the lunch ingredient they’ve been carrying in their backpack. The adults walk around, giving each kid a dab of hand sanitizer [10], and collect the ingredients, and then distribute a share of food on the crumb catcher of each kid. The adults literally wait on the kids hand-and foot, but this minimizes mishaps, like bumping into each other and kicking sand/dust onto the food.  The kids are allowed to eat the snacks, and ask for more/less or decline any food offered to them by the adults (to avoid wasting food.) But no one can eat the ‘main course’ until the adults are done serving and are seated themselves. Kids can ask for second helpings, which the adults serve. While you don’t want food wasted, you also want to have as much of it consumed as possible, so you don’t have to carry the weight back to camp.

At the end of the meal, each person gathers up the corners of their crumb catchers, forming a loose bundle. A now-empty ingredient plastic bag is passed around the circle, so that each person can shake the crumbs from their crumb catcher into the ‘garbage bag,’ which then gets carried back to camp to be thrown into trash.

The crumb-catchers are then returned to the backpacks; they are reused each day. If sticky or saucy foods got dripped onto the crumb catcher, the owner can wash it when they get back to camp, and hang it out to dry overnight, ready to use the next day.

It may seem excessive to go to such trouble to shake the crumbs into the garbage bag, instead of simply shaking them on the ground directly, as most of us might do on a beach.  The rationale is that leaving even small crumbs of human food repeatedly in the same areas will be found and eaten by wild animals. Those wild animals will become dependent on human food, which is unhealthy for them and lose their foraging/hunting skills through lack of use. It’s the same reason why there are bear-proof lockers everywhere in Yosemite, and the rules to store food and toiletries in them are strictly enforced.

The HARD CORE CLUB
In the morning, when lunch ingredients are distributed, the naturalist also hands out an apple to each person.  We are allowed to eat our apple at anytime during the day, whenever one needs a snack. If there are stickers on the apples, they are peeled off and collected by one kid, to be placed in the trash can at Camp Curry, before we set off for the day.  The canny kids will also remove the inedible stem at the same time.  The catch is (1) you can either eat it conventionally, leaving the core/seeds to carry back with you to throw away at camp, (2) or you can join the “Hard Core Club” and eat the core, seeds and all.   “Don’t worry, the apple seed won’t grow in your stomach to become a tree sticking out of your mouth,” the naturalists assured the kids.

I ought to do the same when I eat apples at home. But I revert to my city-slicker ways; the cores go into compost.

BACK TO POST [1] Actually I went mainly to see Floppy, the pet rabbit in the principal’s office.

BACK TO POST [2] These three teachers go way back at Lincoln. Derek MacLeod and Becky Wong were already at Lincoln when my mom became principal there in the late 1990’s. Belinda Fong was hired by my mom.

BACK TO POST [3] Gilbert Gong is the exception. He’s the director of Lincoln Park, right next door to the school, so he knows all the Lincoln kids. His three daughters went to Lincoln, went to 5th grade science camp, and he chaperones every year.

It was also ironic that I was the only one whose mom was also at science camp.

BACK TO POST[4] For 4th grade science camp, parents are encouraged to chaperone. There is a minimum required ratio of 2 adults per 6 children in the same cabin. Dads are in high demand, there are never enough male adults for the boys’ cabins. (All the cabins are single-sex.)

BACK TO POST [5] As one of the three youngest chaperones, I was appreciated for being able to sling lots of suitcases on and off the buses!

BACK TO POST [6] I had bunked with Frances and Peggy Harris last year at Yosemite. I liked Frances, she was very open and lively. We had had a little adventure together — trying to find the laundromat at Housekeeping Camp. A student’s sleeping bag had gotten wet in transit, and we needed to tumble dry it right away, so that the student could sleep that night. This year, Frances had gone to the 4th grade camp instead of coming to Yosemite (they were during the same week.)

BACK TO POST [7] To make things harder, there was another boy in our group with the same name as one of the twins. But I’ve given him a very different name in this blog.

BACK TO POST [8] Kids lose so much stuff. Each kid loses one item: toothbrush, glove, hat, water bottle, etc. Multiply by one hundred kids and you have enough stuff in ‘lost and found’ to outfit an entire Ukrainian orphanage. So Liam is kind of smart to have so many back ups!

BACK TO POST [9] It was a tongue-tripper for me, I kept saying ‘come-cratcher’. But I didn’t say ‘Cumberbatch.’

BACK TO POST [10] On principle, I think using hand sanitizer in ‘civilization’ is a lazy cop-out (and it helps bacteria to evolve resistance.) I can always find somewhere to wash my hands with soap and water, even if it takes some effort to find a restroom. Only while hiking and in the wilderness, where there are no facilities with soap and water — like at Yosemite Science Camp — do I condone the use of hand sanitizer.

Why I never became a teacher

(This is a prequel anecdote to a much longer upcoming piece I am writing for the blog. Writing this episode got so digressive and detailed that I am publishing it as a stand-alone piece.)

Fifth grade had been traumatic for me. It was marked by a ‘it’s-so-crazy-I-still-can’t-believe-it’ incident; the loss of innocence that irreversibly advanced me in one bounding leap from child to adult.

When I was in 3rd grade, Ms. Hydon, the 4th grade teacher, got married to Mr. Lawrence, the 5th grade teacher and became known as Mrs. Lawrence. Young and pretty, Ms. Hydon was considered the most glamourous teacher in school. Getting married —to another teacher, no less— added to the aura of fairy-tale romance.

For 4th grade, I had Mrs. Lawrence. She became pregnant, and was out on maternity leave for the second semester, so we had a long-term substitute. Mrs. Cox, who ended up in our class photo, was middle-aged and decidedly less glamourous.

For 5th grade, I had Mr. Lawrence. Mr. Lawrence was the only male classroom teacher in our school. The rest of the male teachers were specialists: Mr. Butterworth taught French to the 5th- through 9th-graders; Mr. Somkid taught PE for all grades; and then there was Mr. Lawson, the headmaster. 

Mr. Lawrence had a reputation for being strict. In fact there was a kid named Steven who was transferred from the other 5th grade class into our class, because his parents wanted more discipline for him. Steven’s mother was the school nurse.

Since I was a quiet and conformist kid, I didn’t think I would have any problems with Mr. Lawrence.

He turned out to be — how can I put it mildly — a pompous, thin-skinned megalomanic jackass.

Mr. Lawrence was actually one Lawrence Kow from Malaysia. He was addressed by his first name. It wasn’t unusual for teachers in our school to go by their first names. For some, they were addressed as Mrs. Suchada or Ms. Sukon because they were Thai. Or they had polysyllabic Thai surnames that were difficult to pronounce by non-Thai students: Mrs. Angela, Mrs. Christine instead of Mrs. Bankerdmuangnorn, Mrs. Namlaifaidap.  The only teachers who were addressed as Mrs. <PolysyllabicThaiSurname> were British women who had married Thai husbands . . . and kept the perverse European practice of being addressed by their married surname, like Mrs. Phavantha, Mrs. Sananikorn.

(I guess I should have explained this at the start, but you’ve probably figured out by now that I went to a British elementary school in Thailand. In Thailand, the universal convention is to address someone by their first name, not surname.)

Now Kow is quite easy to pronounce, but worried about students mocking his name with bovine jokes, he went by Mr. Lawrence. That’s how insecure he was. In matrimony, Mrs. Lawrence had taken not just his last name, but his first name as well.

There’s a section in Roald Dahl’s “Danny, The Champion of the World” where Danny is unfairly accused in of cheating in class.[1]  Mr. Lawrence’s psychological abomination against me played out the exact same way. Except I was charged with lying.  And that even Mr. Lawrence knew better than to try inflict corporal punishment on me…

In 5th grade, I was pretty good about doing my homework.  As much as my dad nagged me about other things, even he didn’t bother to see what homework I had each day, he knew I’d finished it.

We had been doing a series of spelling lists. Mr. Lawson had announced an upcoming school-wide spelling competition, and Mr. Lawrence wanted his class to have the best showing.  Especially since Mr. Lawson’s daughter was also in our class.

We were supposed to write down each day’s words in a notebook, and bring it back to school each day, even though Mr. Lawrence wasn’t consistent about collecting them to check. It was more for practice. On the one day I had left my spelling notebook at home, Mr. Lawrence asked the class to hand them in for a spot check.

“I left mine at home,” I told him.

“You’re sure you didn’t just simply not do your homework?”

“I DID do my homework. I just forgot to bring it.”

“LIAR!”  Mr. Lawrence thundered. In front of the entire class. Without a shred of proof.

“I am not lying!”

(The funny thing was for once my dad knew what my homework was and that I had finished it the previous night.  I had asked Dad for one of the definitions. ‘Why don’t you ask my dad,’ I wanted to say to Mr. Lawrence, but of course this was before the age of cell-phones. It was inconceivable to trek down to the school office to use the only telephone on campus and call my dad at work, just to ask if I had done my homework.)

Mr. Lawrence launched into a slanderous tirade against me, fueled by a vehemently insane conviction he had to be right. There was no room for him to be wrong because he was the adult/teacher, and I was the student/child.

I was rooted to the spot, unable to believe what was happening. I had always turned in my homework, complete and on time. I’d never been in any trouble with Mr. Lawrence before.  I had never thought that adults could be so blatantly unfair and such bullies. Now I knew, I was blown away, shell-shocked.

I don’t know why Mr. Lawrence did what he did. The only remotely plausible reason I can think of is that somehow he was trying to discredit me. In class, I was one of the kids with the best grades, along with the headmaster’s daughter. Mr Lawrence had shown signs of favoritism towards her, to curry favor with his boss, I guess.

I can’t remember if I told my dad about the incident. Whether I did or not, I knew nothing would happen.  My dad didn’t call up the school to make a fuss, to have Mr. Lawrence punished, nor to have me transfer to the other 5th grade class.

(I also did wonder about Mrs. Lawrence, did she know what kind of abusive man she had married and fathered her child?)

After this episode, I resolved to never become a teacher. I knew that as a teacher, I too would become prone to biases, favoritism, and dislikes with my students. If I could not hold myself to treating all my students equally and be fair to all of them, then I would not be a teacher at all.

BACK TO POST [1] Excerpt from “Danny, the Champion of the World” by Roald Dahl

A teacher called Captain Lancaster [taught] the nine- and ten-year-olds, and this year included me… He had been a captain in the army during the war… and that was why he still called himself Captain Lancaster instead of just plain mister.

We were having our first lesson of the day with Captain Lancaster. I was sitting next to Sidney Morgan in the back row and we were slogging away.
Sidney Morgan covered his mouth with his hand and whispered very softly to me, “What are eight nines?”
“Seventy-two,” I whispered back.
Captain Lancaster’s finger shot out like a bullet and pointed straight at my face. “You!” he shouted. “Stand up!”
“Me, sir?” I said.
“Yes you, you blithering idiot!”
I stood up.
“You were talking!” he barked. “What were you saying?” He was shouting at me as though I was a platoon of soldiers on the parade ground. “Come on, boy! Out with it!”
I stood still and said nothing.
“Are you refusing to answer me?” he shouted.
“Please, sir,” Sidney said. “It was my fault. I asked him a question”
“Oh you did, did you? Stand up!”
Sidney stood up beside me.
“So you were cheating!” he said. “Both of you were cheating!”
We kept silent.
“Cheating is a repulsive habit practiced by guttersnipes and dandyprats!” he said.
From where I was standing I could see the whole class sitting absolutely rigid, watching Captain Lancaster. Nobody dared move.
“You may be permitted to cheat and lie and swindle in your own homes,” he went on, “but I will not put up with it here!”
At this point, a sort of blind fury took hold of me and I shouted back at him, “I am not a cheat!”
There was a fearful silence in the room. Captain Lancaster raised his chin and fixed me with his watery eyes. “You are not only a cheat but you are insolent,” he said quietly. “You are a very insolent boy. Come up here.”

BATHING

I’m sitting at a table in the middle of a cafe.

At the table to my left, someone is talking very loudly. I put on my earphones, blast on my iPod and tune him out.

At the table in front of me, someone is viewing p0rn on his laptop. I rotate my seat, so that I don’t have to see what he’s looking at.

At the table to my right, someone is quietly reading a newspaper. But he smells really awful. I move to a table at the far side of the cafe, because I am incapable of switching off the scent receptors in my nose. I mentally apologize for shunning him. I hope the quiet news-paper reader doesn’t notice.

Hygiene is a challenge, if you are homeless. What facilities are open and/or accessible to the general public, where a homeless person could not be barred from entry? Which facilities are free, or cheap enough that a homeless person could collect enough spare change to afford?

Toilets are the easiest: public libraries, fast food restaurants, any building open to the public. Laundry is a realistic possibility: coin-operated laundromats are widespread. There are even car washes for cars, but no people-washes for people. (It’s a little weird, if you think about it that way. Except for this one case (at the 18 second mark).) Bathing is an exponentially greater challenge. Where could you find showers open to you? (Even some homeless shelters don’t have bathing facilities.)

In the US, we have an obsession with daily showers and deodorant, and a big thing against body odor (BO). In contrast, Europeans are more lackadaisical about bathing – notice how much perfume they use, in part to mask BO. Maybe that’s why Americans are more sensitive to bodily odors, because we’re not as desensitized to those types of smells … anymore. Apparently, Americans used to bathe only 1-3 times each week.*

Being able to keep clean is critical, when you are trying to maintain personal dignity and social respect, especially when you are homeless. Having people wrinkling their nose when they pass by you probably hurts your self-esteem. It will maintain your health/well-being, boost your morale, and even help you get and keep a job.

There are several examples and options for solutions for bathing when homeless. But it’s all piecemeal, nothing that addresses the large scale, systematic problem.

  1. Public bath houses are an established part of some historic cultures: northern Chinese (澡堂), Japanese (浴場), Turkish/Central Asian (hamam), Russian (баня), which were open to all. They charge a nominal fee. They are usually segregated by sex, with separate facilities, or open to men and women on different days. Everyone is required to scrub down thoroughly with soap/shampoo before soaking in the communal pools. For those which offer a co-ed option, users wear bathing suits. But the bath houses are dying out even in those countries, as indoor plumbing and piped hot water has become the norm. They function more as a socializing/cultural experience, less a hygienic necessity. (There are even a handful in the Bay Area, which cater to those ethnic enclaves, such as the Kabuki Springs in San Francisco Japantown.)
  2. In the second half of the 20th century, Bay Area bath houses gained a notorious reputation as places where gays went to connect. But as homosexuality is more acceptable, and with other avenues for hooking up, those bath houses have almost all closed. Some bath houses also catered to a more ‘hippie’ clientele, offering hot tubs and saunas as well. Today, spas have become very popular, but usually market themselves as upscale and exclusive.
  3. In south and south-east Asia, many people bathe for free in rivers, canals, ponds (tanks), lakes, etc. They bathe in public, each with a sarong wrapped around their privates. The practice is not a practical option in the Bay Area — there is a drought; the water is cold; there would be concerns with soap pollution impacts on wildlife; and there is no easy access to creek banks.
  4. In the Bay Area, some large employers and building managers provide showers. The showers are for employees/tenants after sweating on their bike ride to work, or exercising. Only for the handful of homeless people who happen to work for an such employer or building could this be an option.
  5. Many cities also have public swimming pools with separate showers for females and males. They usually charge user fees, which includes the use of the showers with the swim. Most pools are only open summers; some are open year-round. It is conceivable that public swimming pool showers could be made available to homeless people for showering? Most swimmers, on first instinct, would likely oppose the idea of sharing the showers with the homeless, so such a scheme would require a lot of thoughtful planning, and education and outreach to the swimmers.
  6. There’s an innovative approach in a project called Dignity on Wheels, which is launching in East Palo Alto. It’s a shower truck – a vehicle fitted with showers and toilets, which can be driven and parked at different locations (analogous to a food truck!) for the homeless to come use. (There’s a similar project called Lava Mae in San Francisco.) The concept is very promising, although it’s hard to imagine if it can be scaled up to serve the over 7,000 homeless people in Santa Clara county. Please consider donating some money to Dignity on Wheels, as I did, even as it is in my own self-interest.
  • When we went on a historical tour around Pendleton, Oregon, we found out that in the 1800’s, Chinese who ran the laundries would also have a hip-bath in another part of the shop. While a customer’s clothes were being washed, he could have a hot bath himself. The bath water was not changed between uses, if there were men queuing up to bathe. There might have been a discount if you were at the bak end of the queue.

Update to Part 1 of Counting the Camouflaged: Homeless Census

1) I made a surmise regarding transgender people in the original post. Sadly, the reality is harsher than I thought.

2) Anne pointed out that she’s known of the biennial homeless census, since she’s remained a constant subscriber to the San Jose Mercury News. I did find quite a few articles by them going back a few year when I was doing research for the original post.