MY VIEW • Many school districts cutting popular program
'Oh, you're from Portland. That's why you're so … outdoorsy,' said a friend to me as I stoked a backyard campfire in the heart of Brooklyn, N.Y.
I laughed as he said it, but the comment made me wonder. Any number of 'strange' things about me could be credited to my Portland upbringing: I make lifestyle choices with the Earth in mind, I like to sing folk songs around campfires, and I value community and work to build it wherever I go.
But what is it that makes us Portlanders so darned 'outdoorsy?' The truth is, we are city dwellers. Yes, my parents dragged me on hikes to waterfalls as a child, but even if I hadn't been so privileged, I would still know what it is to appreciate the natural world. Because I am from Portland, I went to Outdoor School.
We should be proud of Portland's Outdoor School program. Not only is it incredibly successful, it is also the oldest in the country. Our program began in 1966. Well before the first Earth Day was celebrated, sixth-graders from Portland were leaving the city behind for a week in the woods. They discovered a world that can be difficult to learn from textbooks - following animal tracks through a forest, feeling the difference between subsoil and topsoil, identifying native Oregon trees, and testing water quality. At night they sang around campfires and by day they worked together building an intentional community, where every kind of person is accepted.
Traditions have changed, lessons have altered, but the spirit remains the same. Every week of the spring and fall, sixth-graders from distant corners of Portland come together to learn outside, where they watch spores poof from a fungi, dissect a salmon from a clean river and get their hands in the mud.
Children who don't feel successful in the four walls of a classroom discover they can achieve academically, too. Kids who are lost in broken families or the hallways of crowded schools discover that their student leaders care about them and want them to succeed.
Students from both ends of Portland's socioeconomic spectrum, from urban neighborhoods and suburban subdivisions, from immigrant backgrounds and old Portland families, come together to form a true community, wherein each person has a role and everyone is treated with love and respect. The high school student leaders give up a week of their lives because they love to forget about themselves and live for their sixth-graders, thinking every moment how to teach, mentor and care for young people who they had never even met.
No wonder so many students cry at the week's end, not wanting to leave. They've had a taste of something different, a beautiful way to live. The only consolation we can offer is the promise that they can return in four years, as a high school student leader.
I will never forget how hard it was for me as a senior, back in 2002, when I knew it was my last week. Anyone who has lived this magic knows that it is simultaneously indescribable and invaluable. How to even come back to the cold streets of the city after a week like this? How to explain to the world back home that something has been lost in our urban society, something precious, that we have had a glimpse of something better?
All over the world, the trend is the same: loss of rural lifestyle, move to the city. Yes, we like these things we have built for ourselves, but these are not the things that actually sustain us as humans. Not only is it beautiful to learn about plants, animals, soil and water, but it is also necessary to know about the things that keep us alive. By relegating nature to an extracurricular activity as a society, what are we losing? And are we willing to lose it entirely?
When the news came last week that Portland and Gresham plan to shrink Outdoor School to a three-day program, and that Parkrose and David Douglas are cutting it entirely, I literally became sick to my stomach. It is not possible to cram the magic of Outdoor School into three days.
Forgive me for saying it because I understand that times are tough, but I wonder if people making these hard decisions realize that Outdoor School is not a long field trip - it is an essential part of what makes us Portlanders. If we aren't raising our children to be 'outdoorsy,' then they won't be. If we don't value programs that teach children to value what keeps us alive, then they won't, either. If we don't provide high school students with opportunities to be excellent role models, then they won't rise.
The question is not, 'How can we cut down Outdoor School?' The question is, 'How do we make the rest of our world like Outdoor School?'
Rachel Byron-Law of Southeast Portland is a singer-songwriter, trip leader and Portland Public School substitute Spanish immersion teacher.