How do you prepare bright and successful inner city students for future leadership? Challenge them to take on something unfamiliar.
Polartec Marketing Manager Darren Josey joined Big City Mountaineers’ first New England hike. Read on for his tale of the trip.
Most New Englanders have hiked Mount Mondandnock. It’s earned the dubious distinction the world’s most climbed peak. But for a couple of kids from inner-city Boston, that distinction meant very little.
This overnight hike is the work of Big City Mountaineers [BCM], non-profit Polartec has worked with since 2011. We’re proud to support their mission of transforming lives of under-served urban youth through wilderness mentoring expeditions that instill critical life skills. In that process, they foster the next generation of outdoor stewards. This August I was able to join the very first New England expedition at Mount Monadnock with 15 Boston-area students, none of whom had ever spent a night in a tent.
I’ve met several people on my life who were book smart but struggled with street smarts. These kids possessed both, exercising self sufficiency of navigating Boston public transit, fitting in extracurricular activities, and excelling with top-of-the-class grades.
Ask them to lead 23 of their peers and adults on the unknown trails ahead.
To most people, a well-traveled New Hampshire hike may not seem like a big deal. However, for kids who have never been on a dirt trail, this was a daunting task.
Each kid would have his or her chance to lead the group to the summit. As we started, lead BCM guide Bix Firer tried to hand out the trail map. There were many, “no — no, you take it!” from the crowd but eventually one kid agreed to be the first to lead. As Bix handed the map over, it was if the paper was made from lead. Each time it changed hands, the map seemed to make the recipient’s knees wobble with the weight of responsibility.
Without fail, each kid who got the map stared wide-eyed looking for trail markers and asking the BCM guides what the numbers and denotations meant. Walking through the woods on your own is one thing. Having to do it with others are counting on you is another.
We successfully reached the 3,166’ summit, which from the outset the BCM guides made clear wasn’t the ultimate goal. There was more to come when we got back to camp.
After a chilly night under the stars, we dove into a morning of team-building exercises. The BCM guides had saved the best for last.
Each kid was handed a blindfold and asked to hold the hand of the person in front of them since they would be guided on a blind walk.
The guides explained that it was of the utmost importance that everyone remain silent and listen to the direction of the person guiding their group since the ground ahead was covered with roots, rocks, and logs.
The journey was a purposeful zigzag across the campsite before entering the woods and going off the trail. We moved slowly until we reached a rope maze. The kids were spread out with each kid placing their left hand on the rope and remaining silent.
Then Bix announced the new rules: everyone must remain blindfolded and keep their left hand on the rope maze. They could only walk forward, never backwards, and could not speak. If they had a question or wanted help getting out of the maze, they had to raise their hand and a guide would come over to help. Bix also repeated that the maze did have a solution.
With that, they were off. 15 kids in the woods, holding onto a rope, trying to make their way out of a maze.
The maze went uphill, downhill, close to trees that could bump you off your path, and rocks that would cause you to stumble if you were going to fast. After 10 minutes or so Bix reminded the group of silent kids stumbling through the woods, “If you have a question or want help getting out of the maze, just raise your hand.” One girl raised her hand. I walked over.
“Do you have a question or do you want help getting out of the maze?”
“I want help getting out of the maze.”
I took her by the hand and we walked a few feet away from the maze. I asked her to take the blindfold off but remain silent.
With the blindfold off, she saw that the solution was obvious. The maze was a circle and that the only way to get out was to ask for help. She brimmed with a mixture of excitement and concern for her friends as she watched them complete circle after circle in futility.
Before the kids began this exercise, the volunteers were privately told that if a student raised his hand and wanted to ask a question, we could not answer. However, if he or she specifically asked for help, we could give it.
A few minutes later Bix reminded the group, “If you have a question or want help getting out of the maze, just raise your hand.” A few more kids raised their hands. I asked one if she had a question or wanted help getting out of the maze.
“I have a question, how long do we have to stay in here?”
“I can’t answer that but if you want help getting out of the maze, I can help you,” I said.
“I don’t want your help,” she replied.
Little by little some of the kids asked for help. Each had the same shocked and slightly embarrassed look on their faces when they took off the blindfold.
A half hour into the maze, Bix added one more line,
“If you have a question or want help getting out of the maze, just raise your hand. Some of your peers have successfully made their way out of the maze.”
With this news many of the kids changed their strategies. Some slowed down using their free hand to feel around. Others sped up, tripping and falling. Others decided to finally ask for help.
Sixty minutes in, Bix added more:
“If you have a question or want help getting out of the maze, just raise your hand. Most of your peers have successfully made their way out of the maze.”
There were three kids left in the maze. The same girl raised her hand. This time she angrily shouted,
“I have a question!”
“I can’t answer your question, but if you want help to get out of the maze, I can help you.”
She made herself clear: “I DON’T NEED ANYONE’S HELP!”
At an hour and a half, the same three kids remained. Bix asked them to take off their blindfolds. All three were moderately embarrassed but none were angry. A slight smile came from the one girl who had proclaimed she didn’t need anyone’s help. She mentioned later she suspected the maze was a circle.
We sat around the campfire to discuss. Several of the kids felt that asking for help, especially when others had made it out, felt like giving up or was a sign of weakness. Walking in circles in the dark gave a new perspective.
For the kids, this exercise was one more valuable experience made possible by Big City Mountaineers. They learned to let their skills lead the way, stepping into the unknown to tackle problems. And when they need help, they’ll now know to ask for it.
Big City Mountaineers is making sure the next generation of leaders is able to move us forward instead of walking in circles. To learn more about BCM’s mission, volunteer, or donate, please visit their website.