One morning late last spring, 30 eighth-graders from Claremont, New Hampshire, walked off a school bus at Hulbert Outdoor Center. They’d heard about this day from students who’d graduated before them at Claremont Middle School. They’d heard their teacher, Jessica Warkentien, call it “a culminating experience.” Her phrase captured the day’s double purpose — both a celebration of the end of middle school and a series of challenges that would test the students in new and perhaps surprising ways.
They followed a wide path from the bus into the woods, where five instructors trained in experiential education were waiting to guide the students through a ropes course. With the help of the Hulbert staff, the young teenagers ambling up the path would learn — perhaps discover — how they assessed risk and limits, how they performed under pressure, how they gave and received support from others.
At the end of the day, some would get back on the bus feeling that their measure had been taken and that they’d come up short. Others would have surprised themselves and their peers by how well they’d performed. All of them would come away with a deeper understanding of themselves and each other.
Agnieszka Jasinska-Kot, Erin Wilson, and other instructors fitted the group with harnesses and helmets. “Choose a partner,” Jaskinska-Kot told them. Students rushed to pair up, leaving only two quiet girls, Jordan and Emily, unpaired. Emily wore a pretty scoop-necked shirt decorated with beads and held a sweatshirt in her hand like a security blanket. On a normal school day, she’d be in special education classes. On this day, she and several other students from that program were joining their classmates. “Want to be my partner?” Jordan asked Emily. Emily nodded and smiled shyly.
The students walked two by two up a treelined walkway to the course, which was tucked in among tall oaks and pines on Hulbert’s nearly 200-acre grounds. Eleven poles formed a near-circle, its only gap that walkway, which ended at a 35-foot tower. Over the students’ heads, a sturdy wire descended from a platform high on the tower. The height of the Hulbert experience for many of the teens — in both senses of the word — would come in sliding down from the tower on a zip line.
“Like something in a movie,” one of the boys whispered to another. An Indiana Jones movie, to be precise: High overhead, strung between poles, the ropes of a Burma bridge swayed from one of the poles to the central tower. From another, wooden squares just wide enough for a growing boy’s foot improbably attached each to the next, a challenge called “floating islands.” Jaskinska-Kot walked the teens through the other challenges: star climb, moving vines, dangle duo, diagonal beam, lizard climb, shoelaces, trapeze. That last involved climbing up a pole studded with metal staples, then standing on top of the pole and jumping for a trapeze bar hanging five feet away.
Not all the challenges involved climbing. Jaskinska-Kot showed them a low zip line that ran along another pathway through the trees. “If you don’t get across,” she explained with wry humor, “you hit a raging river filled with crocodiles.” Never mind that no river and not a single crocodile ran across the low zip’s path. Jaskinska-Kot wanted the pairs to work together. If the legs of the person on the low zip line touched the ground, she told them, “Your partner has to come and save you.”
Excited chatter spread among the teenagers as they looked high above them. Human beings seem hard-wired to be afraid of heights. Ropes courses turn this in-born fear to educational advantage. This being middle schoolers, whose swirling adolescent questions — Who am I? Do I fit in? How do I act? What’s important to me? — can feel like life-or-death matters, being excited pressed right up against being scared to death.
Some of the kids immediately seized the moment. Sierra, fingernails bright in neon pink, big silver hoop earrings tucked behind her helmet strap, raced across the Indiana Jones bridge. Hannah bolted to the top of the star and leaped from pole to trapeze before rushing into line for the zipline. They were among those in the group who relished challenging themselves. They had a sense of themselves as leaders, comfortable out in front, and the tests affirmed it in front of everyone. Sierra, a dancer who was used to performing, told a classmate, “I’m not afraid of heights.”
Others quickly absorbed harder lessons. Two pairs of boys ran to be first in line below the lizard climb. Robbie clambered up holds on the vertical pole to a wooden platform. Earlier, he’d boasted to his friends that the Burma bridge, at the top of the lizard climb, had his name on it, and that he’d make quick work of it. He stepped out onto the first loose “V” and called down, “That’s so sketchy!” His partner wasn’t there: He’d wandered over to the low zip line. Robbie hung on the ropes another second, then flung himself back onto the platform, defeated. He laid there for a time, then slowly down-climbed the lizard pole.
But some lessons took longer to unfold. For the first hour, Jordan and Emily lingered at the edges of the action, avoiding and drifting among elements. They watched Hannah climb the star and squeeze the blue rubber duckie hanging above it. They stood side by side watching a bunch of boys run with the low zip line, but stepped aside when it was their turn and instead wandered over to another element, another line. Emily smiled and watched, kneading her sweatshirt between her hands.
The two girls got in line for the rope ladder, the most direct way to reach the zipline platform. (You wouldn’t call it the easiest way when the ladder rises at a swaying 45-degree angle to the platform.) This time, though, Jordan clipped a safety line into her harness, asked an instructor to check it, and started climbing up widely spaced two-by-fours. She moved quickly and steadily. Emily craned her neck to watch, smiling harder. Someone called out, “Good job, Jordan!” as the girl pulled herself onto the platform.
There, instructor Erin Wilson clipped Jordan to another safety system and congratulated her on her climb. Wilson, who had been timid as a child, understood the effort it could take to make it to the tower. Before she moved back into the shade of the platform, Jordan peeked out and smiled down at Emily, pale sunlight reflecting in her glasses.
When Jordan’s turn came to climb out on the zipline platform, a call went up from the tower. “Where’s Emily?” Wilson called. “Emily, we need you. Grab that rope and run it down to the end of the zipline.”
A couple of boys called out, “Run, Emily! Run!” A look of irritation flashed across Emily’s face, replacing the fixed smile. But she picked up the line and ran slowly down the hill.
Wilson gave Jordan the signal to go. The girl dropped down from her high perch, her legs windmilling as if running through the air. “Go Jordan!” a boy yelled as she flew down the green tunnel.
A few minutes later, she walked back up the path with Emily, pulling the zipline rope for the next flyer. Emily, sporting a wide grin, showed Jordan how to hand the rope to Wilson in the tower. The two girls stood side by side again. You wouldn’t know that anything had changed.
They wandered again to the low zip. Emily emerged from the group with the safety line clipped to her harness, received her go-ahead, and ran down to the raging river and the crocodiles. She got hung there, giggling. Jordan rescued her, also laughing. “You did good,” she told Emily.
“Want to do it again?” Jordan asked her beaming partner. Several boys shouted out encouragement as each girl ran to get across the river and as each rescued the other from imaginary crocodiles.
“We don’t measure success by how high you go, but by how you’ve challenged yourself,” Jaskinska-Kot had told the students before they’d started. Hulbert school programs director Jen Hargrave calls it “challenge by choice.”
Who’s to say how many tests were passed that morning?
Robbie, the boy who’d backed off the Burma bridge, had discovered the limits of his bravado within five minutes on the ropes course. He’d learned something about partnership, too: His first partner had deserted him, and when he wandered away from a second partner, two classmates chewed him out. Later, he rose to the challenge, cheering for his partner and for others.
In their final minutes at the ropes course, the tallest, biggest boy in the class started up the rope ladder to the zip line but stopped partway. His classmates called out encouragement, as they’d done for others, but he stayed put, as if frozen into place. Immediately, one of the instructors placed herself directly below him and quietly talked him back down to the ground. “You’ve done great,” she told him. “Congratulations.”
Jessica Warkentien hears from former students that they draw on lessons learned at the ropes course all through high school. Before this group graduates from middle school in a few weeks, she’ll remind them of the challenges they faced at Hulbert. High school, she’ll tell them, is just another challenge.
Hulbert Outdoor Center hosts more than 50 school groups a year, in a combination of home school, public school, and private school groups. Most of the students come in the fall. Some of the groups from more affluent communities stay overnight. Teachers recognize the deeper levels of trust and bonding that emerge during the multi-day visits, traits that ripple through the course of the school year. One such teacher, Jessica Lahey of Crossroads Academy in Lyme, New Hampshire, witnesses a transformation in her students each year. “They enter Hulbert as one class,” she says. “And they come back to school a completely different class.”
Jessica Warkentien yearns to extend her students’ experience at Hulbert — and perhaps make it available earlier in the school year, so the effect on the class can start to play out in middle school. Her group comprises only one-sixth of the Claremont eighth grade. But funding even Warkentien’s 30 students is a challenge of its own in the New Hampshire school district that’s long been synonymous with the question of what’s a good enough — an adequate — education for children in the state’s poorer communities.
“All schools are having funding issues,” notes Hulbert’s Hargrave. “I’m very interested in finding sources to continue our great work here.” Hargrave is helping Warkentien with the funding efforts at Claremont; she knows many other students could benefit from the challenges in Hulbert’s woods.
Maybe next year, or the year after that, a yellow school bus, or two, will follow the Connecticut River north seven exits on Interstate 91. Maybe they’ll drop off every Claremont eighth-grader for two days of team building, confidence building, character building, community building. With so much potential, Warkentien wonders if short visits are adequate. Maybe it could be three days.
“It’s the best thing we do with our kids all year,” she says.
Author Kristen Laine, writes and blogs about environmental education, women’s issues and children in the outdoors. After her graduation from Harvard, Kristen went west, and in between outdoor expeditions in the Seattle area, became “Outside Magazine Online’s” first editor. Now on the east coast, Kristen lives with her husband and two children in Orange, New Hampshire, and when she’s not writing, can often be found rowing on the Connecticut River.