After a deep breath to steady my nerves I pushed upon the door. Beginning my second year of public speaking I was in the habit now of arriving a few minutes early to gage the room and get a feel for the audience. Knowing what likely lay in store, this particular crowd made me a bit nervous. But fully committed now to my mission I set aside the anxiety I felt and smiled broadly in the face of my worst nightmare, a class of 30 sixth-graders.
At Sherman Middle School I was invited to do a presentation by my long-time friend Vera Naputi. A fellow climber and avid adventurer as well as a talented educator she had hoped that I might offer her class of 11 & 12-year-olds a positive role model in their community who could speak to the many opportunities available to them in the broad world beyond the confines of their home on the Eastside of Madison, Wisconsin. As a person privileged by the sacrifices of many selfless and dedicated individuals who came before me I had hoped to impress upon them as well the obligation each of us have to inspire and encourage the best in all those around us.
Ms. Naputi had spent a portion of the winter semester sharing some of my recent work as writer and photographer. With a specialty in addressing the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in outdoor recreation and environmental conservation I tell stories of people who spend their lives at work and play in the natural world. Her students were assigned to read portions of my book The Adventure Gap, which details the events surrounding the first African-American team to attempt a climb of Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. She had shown them the trailer of the film on the 2013 Expedition Denali project that I co-produced called “An American Ascent”. She even had them listen to episodes of my podcast series The Joy Trip Project and my 2015 TED Talk.
“They’re so excited to hear what you have to share,” Ms. Naputi said.
Never having been the subject of anyone’s homework before I found myself just a bit intimidated by a room full of children who had studied my work in advance of a presentation. According to Ms. Naputi’s lesson plans she had very diligently worked to help her students understand very complicated and controversial topics such as privilege, discrimination, racial stereotypes and institutional bias. Using the historical references, metaphors and analogies that I relate in my book to the lack of racial diversity in adventure sports like rock climbing, backcountry skiing and mountaineering she helped her students to establish a solid working knowledge of the struggles common to the Civil Rights era of the past and the ongoing challenges of the Black Lives Matter movement of today. Ms. Naputi told me that most every child came prepared with questions and comments ready to engage in a thoughtful discussion of these complex subjects in which they had a clear and apparent interest. I felt obliged not to disappoint them.
While her teaching partner Kate Jorgensen lead a lesson in Mathematics, Ms. Naputi and I chatted quietly in the back of classroom. To help me understand the nature of her unique teaching environment before my presentation she gave me a bit of additional information on her students.
“We have kids from a variety of different backgrounds,” she began. “Some of them have learning disabilities. Many qualify for free or reduced lunch and at least seven of my students are homeless.”
With a slight gesture of her head she subtly indicated a child sitting alone huddled at a desk behind her. Looking over Ms. Naputi’s shoulder it was impossible for me to tell if the rumpled form was a boy or a girl. Arms folded under a tiny head tucked beneath a hooded winter coat bundled up in the well-heated classroom on this cold January day the student looked more like a pile of laundry.
“She usually sleeps through the first few hours of the day,” Ms Naputi said. “A cab picks her up at 6:45 in the morning and brings her here. Her mother works third shift and there are two younger siblings in elementary school.”
I didn’t ask from where the taxi delivered this child on each school day. I could only imagine that she must spend sleepless nights in a homeless shelter or in a squalid motel room that her working mother could ill-afford. Only in this safe place, her classroom, could she get a few hours to sleep, but at what cost? Due to circumstances beyond her control this child is made to sacrifice the precious education she so desperately needs. Despite the lessons that Ms. Naputi, Ms. Jorgensen and other teachers work so hard to provide if a child cannot muster the energy to stay awake, participate in class and learn how can she not be forever trapped in the same deadly cycle of poverty and homelessness in which her mother now finds herself? Without the basic human right of a living wage and affordable housing our society is doomed to perpetuate these conditions that make early childhood education all but impossible and renders any encouragement I can provide utterly moot. How can I inspire a child to dream of climbing mountains when she doesn’t know where she’s going to sleep for the night?
What frightens me most about speaking to children is their infinite capacity for understanding. Like walking talking microprocessors they possess the same mental capacity and intellectual acuity of adults. Without the cynicism and contempt for the human experience imposed by years of disappointment, false hope and broken promises they are blank slates upon which can be etched enduring impressions to last a lifetime. As such as they are wildly curious and inquisitive taking nothing purely at face value. And if we are going to make the world a better place it is here that we must begin. Before we can encourage young people to protect and preserve the natural environment around them we must first establish the safety and security of the communities in which they live.
These children can surely see the inequities of life as their classmates struggle against challenges of financial insecurity and access to social capital that they themselves are spared. They are certain to recognize when opportunities for advancement or prestige are available to some and not to all. It’s difficult to imagine when some start out in life without the advantages so many take for granted how every child can be expected to perform in school and progress through their studies at the same rate. In order to achieve true equity we must acknowledge that some children and their parents will need our assistance. And those of us privileged with better opportunities either through our own hard work or mere good fortune must recognize our obligation to do all that we can to help. They are all our children.
Ms. Naputi called her class to attention and welcomed me to the front of the room. The children sat quietly, patiently, their faces shinning with anticipation. But in the back one little girl still remained asleep at her desk with her head down resting on her folded arms. As I began, though I knew she couldn’t hear me, I spoke directly to her.
“I am a person of privilege,” I said in a halting voice that affirmed a bit of the nervousness I still felt. “But with that privilege comes an obligation to inspire and encourage in others all that was encouraged and inspired in me.”
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