From Theory to Practice

Over the period of the last four and a quarter days, I spent my time as a “Cabin leader” (CL) at the Outdoor Science School in Big Bear, CA. A Cabin Leader is a Camp Counselor who is responsible for a certain amount of youth assigned to his or her cabin for the week. Going to OSS has given me a valuable perspective in regard to the education. These past days have been almost as valuable as the time I spend volunteering at a local elementary school.

I’ve been a Cabin Leader before. It was two years ago when I was a sophomore, but I don’t really count that time because there was such an abundance of CL’s for my old elementary school that I didn’t have to do anything. I actually ended up participating in the activities with the kids more than I was watching after them. This time was different, as I was assigned alone to eight 12 year old girls. One of the girls was special needs and a few of them needed to be sent off to their teachers to take their various medications. My friend saw my assignment and wished me good luck.

My responsibility was continually tested as a CL. I had to wake them up every morning at 7am, and make sure they got ready in time for breakfast 50 minutes later. After breakfast I had to get them back to the cabin and then again drop them off at 9:15 for morning songs. Cabin Leaders had to sing along to what I believe were nature remixes of songs from the 50’s and 60’s. My favorite was “Pine Tree, Pine Tree.” After songs the kids needed to report to their naturalist group. I was also assigned to a naturalist, Leanne. That meant that during much of the day I was partially in charge of a different group of students during the hikes and nature lessons (boy and girl).

After the hike was more “cabin time” as they say, which means watching the girls do their homework (OSS journal) and giggle. I was mostly doing the latter while making sure that they didn’t get out of hand. Soon came the time to have them ready for dinner by 5:20. Then more cabin time, then back to the main hall (dining hall) to get ready for the evening/night activity. After the evening activity, it’s back to the cabin to prepare for bed. “Feet on Bunk” by 9:15. “Lights Out” at 9:25. “Silence” at 9:30. As the reader can guess at this point, they did not dronishly follow the pattern I was supposed to encourage them to follow. There was giggling and such giggling was highlighted when a naturalist came around to check on the girls. This therefore affected a cabin’s chance to get a “special visitor” (a live or preserved animal).

That was a typical day. They only had time to shower once. It is supposed to be twice according to a schedule, but they giggled their way through their second opportunity. I went twice, during my time off. Surprisingly I didn’t wreak as much as I would if I had missed a day’s shower back in the city. No acne breakouts. I could even wear clothing twice. brushing teeth for 3 out of 5 days didn’t affect me too much. There simply was not enough time.


  1. Monday night: Eco Clue. What predator ate what prey in what ecosystem? None of my girls won, and they really let that get to them. Prone to negative thinking they considered themselves worthless “losers,” and didn’t enjoy themselves. I didn’t know what to say.
  2. Tuesday night: For my naturalist group, it was the 30-45 minute night hike. Others went to a dance. It was awesome. We did the “blind trust walk,” heard a Native story, saw light come from quartz rocks, saw triboluminescence from chewing winto-green life savers, and saw hundreds of stars. We saw two comets!
  3. Wednesday night: For my group, the dance. It was goofy crazy and fun. I am modest and shy, but I really let go that night. Cabin leaders had to dress up really silly so at that point I said I might as well forget my shyness and party! We did the car wash dance, the chicken dance, and the thriller dance! I loved it.
  4. Thursday night was skit night. CL’s didn’t have to be in them, which was good, because when it comes to acting I can’t let go. I don’t like theater. I planned the skit for them the day before because it took them forever to think about it (we had to have them think about it since Monday night). I even had to do some research to try and have the script as accurate as possible. They did okay, but they giggled a lot through the whole thing. Others were funny, and a couple of them flopped completely.
  5. Friday morning: Get up early. Pack bags. Take them outside to designated areas. Go to breakfast. Come back and clean the cabin. Sweeping, wiping down beds, and then getting checked and released by a Naturalist.

The bad things

Thursday night, people went on Cabin Raids (which are against the rules) and dumped buckets of water on 5 or 6 Cabin Leaders and a few students sleeping nearest the leaders got soaked. I thankfully wasn’t hit. This put a sour note on the last day, and we almost didn’t take a group photo had I not encouraged it after the Cabin Leader Coordinator spent 10 minutes trying to figure out what happened. He was annoyed. I understood the frustration but after a while I felt that we should have just forgotten about it because no one was fessing up and complaining didn’t help the situation. Most of the leaders who were hit could laugh about it so I didn’t really care after 5 minutes.

One of my students, the sister of the special needs student was miserable the entire time, even ruining the trip for her sister at many points because her sister felt bad for the girl. Let’s call the miserable one Ashley, and the sister Taylor. Ashley was one of the main students glad to get away from her parents. However after not heeding the naturalists’ instructions to drink plenty of water due to high elevation, she started throwing up. She threw up from Monday to Wednesday in patches of the day. Then she started crying (again from Monday to Wednesday) about wanting to go home and that she’d feel better if she could talk to her mom. The OSS people said not to let her call because hearing the parents usually aggravates home sickness. Ashley quickly fell into a depressed state, ultimately catastrophizing her experience by stating, “Nobody cares about me.” I felt some sympathy until I started to see what she was really about. She was a snotty, stuck up privileged girl who is absolutely hard to please. I know it’s crazy to make a conclusion like that after a few days but I couldn’t take it. She was disrespectful to her classmates (who say that she is always disrespectful) she was picky with all of the food and gets enjoyment out of other people’s negative emotions and actions. She back talked and didn’t say one nice thing the entire time. Everything she spoke was negative. She even ruined the skit by refusing to participate 10 minutes before we walked to Juniper Hall, so I had to make her a rock, when I had already made her a non-talking twig before. Taylor on the other hand, although not very responsive, did what she was told and got ready without me telling her (for the most part). She always tried to cheer her sister up and packed most of their bags by herself.

State testing. Yes, just when I thought I’d gotten away from the ignorance of national accountability for the sake of “the global economy,” it turns out that much of what these kids had to learn was on the 5th grade science test. They were told to remember the songs and journal work for that sake. They did remember the songs, but not because of a stupid test, it was because they were catchy and made them laugh. One night the host teacher from my old Elementary school I was volunteering for (my old 5th grade teacher) came through to check on students before bed. He told the to enjoy the rest of the trip, because “when you get back it’s going to be work work work.” Another teacher came in and agreed because the state test is next month. “You guys are going to be sweatin’ bullets.” I highly doubt that they like state tests, but such “encouragement” is retarded. Tests don’t matter. I don’t even remember what was on that test. I was so upset and disappointed to find that those retarded things the government created followed us 8,000 feet above sea level.

The kids watch too much news. “Did you hear about the man that got…” ended up getting really creepy. They talked mostly about death from the news as well as destruction. I’m glad I stopped watching the news a year or so ago, but people need to realize that kids eat that stuff up. Many of the “minority” kids were prone to complaining, harsh judgments, and negative thinking. Two of the girls from my cabin were in my hiking group. While on trail, one of the girls came to conclude that she was “too black” for hiking and nature.

Beyond the bad things, I got another slight peek into how teachers work away from their students. These four at least, gossiped PLENTY and mostly about the kids. I was kind of appalled when I realized that my teachers on the high school level do the same thing. While they were grading, my old teacher asked a question, “If their reading fluency is 127, what rank is that? One, two, three, or four?”
“What’s the middle range?” The other teacher asked.
“I think 124.”
“Well then that’s like a C.”
“Okay so a 2 or 3 then.”

WTF. Then they went on about how they wouldn’t be able to teach certain grade levels because of maturity levels, namely the 7th grade. Lastly they talked about a kid who didn’t eat any of the food at OSS because his parents packed all of his snacks and meals for the week. They talked about how his parents allowed him to be that way (which was a good point) and how he’ll have great problems in life, like when he goes to a friends house or out for dinner. My fellow CL said that cookies had been served for one meal and the boy wanted one. The CL refused to give him any because he didn’t eat the regular food (as you will read later, this was not helpful).
“GOOD FOR YOU!” A teacher said with great joy. “Oh wow!”

I sat down and had a conversation with this boy on Friday morning. I didn’t want to go by other people’s perspectives.
“So why do you bring your own food.”
“Because I’m very picky. But when I was little, I was never picky. I would eat anything. I would even eat a rock.”
“Well why is that?”
“Well one time, there wasn’t enough dinner left at home, and so my dad gave me a cookie, and I guess that taught me a lesson that I didn’t have to eat what everyone else ate. So when dinner came next time I just said *makes whiny face* I don’t wanna eat that!”
“So what if you go out to a restaurant. Are you picky then?”
“Eh, a little bit.”
“What about at home?”
“What do you do if you go to a friend’s house?”
“Oh! I bring my own food.”
“Has anyone complained about this?”
“No not really.”
“Do you think you’ll grow out of it?”
“Eventually. I want to. And I’ve actually tried to change at Science Camp this week. And I’m still trying.”

So as you can see the teachers had a point, but it’s not like this kid is just a greedy bratty snob as they painted him. He changes from scenario to scenario and is also trying to break his habit. When it comes to his food, he said he eats “A LOT” of veggies and fruits, and likes them. He’s close to his immediate family (including grandparents) and the best part of OSS for him was meeting new people and thankfully it wasn’t studying for a test.

I learned much about myself in those days. I like working with children. I’m not energetic and I don’t dumb my voice down to their age, but I like to see how people develop. Being around children is a very open experience, better than being around older kids and adults because children are themselves and they still have a chance to be exposed to great things and people. I like to get kids thinking (for life, not for tests).

“I love nature! Nature rocks! Onward and forward!”
Most likely I won’t be living in a city. It felt so great to see more than seven stars and to be away from the hum of cars and non stop action. It was a pleasure to realize that I’m not a nocturnal animal. I walked right past the dining hall one night after the skits and didn’t even realize it until later. I saw snowfall for the first time and loved it. It’s humbling and inspiring to be in natural elements.

Kids need to be given responsible freedom, the kind of freedom democratic schools give, where you need to respect others, watch for danger, and clean up after yourself, but otherwise you’re free to learn and do as you please.

I don’t mind not being paid. Salary is not important to me as long as I enjoy what I do. I don’t need to be paid much.

I’ve matured much in the past two years.

I guess these volunteering experiences can go down on my resume. I’m happy for the opportunities.


Posted on April 18, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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