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.  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.
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:
- 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.
- Carry in your daypack (beyond the Nature Bridge packing list):
– squeeze tube of lip balm
– small swiss army knife
– wet wipes
– packets of tissue paper
– plastic bags for trash
- Bring PABA-free (hypoallergenic) sunscreen (the REI one in a white-yellow packaging is pretty good.)
- 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!
- 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.
- Otherwise have the single troublesome kid to walk next to you, so you can keep close tabs on him/her.
- 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.
- Make sure your kids really drink enough water and don’t get dehydrated. Otherwise . . .
- Know how to stop nosebleeds. (Better yet, take a first aid or CPR class)
- Know where the Camp Curry security/extra keys office is located, and their hours.
- Consider confiscating kids’ flashlights before entering Spider Cave – make a judgement call depending the kids’ personalities and dynamics
- Inspect kids’ shoelaces for tautness, especially for long/elevation gain hikes.
- 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.
- Bring binoculars or gummy bears. Useful as a bribe for good behavior.
- 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.
- 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
- Know when to ask another adult, or kid, for help.
BACK TO POST  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.