Scent ties to memory. The campfire smoke will wash from my hair in another shower or two. The memories will linger, blending with the smoke of other campfires, other marshmallows, other children’s voices, other tents rustling and pulsing with barely contained energy. The smoke will fade; the memories will remain, tied with thousands of others to that smell.
Where there is smoke, there is fire. Cliché, fine. And mostly true, but fire exists without smoke. Fire burns, but it also melts, cracks, ignites, and metamorphoses. In the sixth grade in the Waldorf curriculum, our children study geology. As the fires of change burn and erupt within them, they discover the shaping of the earth through fire. For Waldorf schools in Northern California, this means a field trip to Mt. Lassen. There were classes from one other Waldorf school and one Waldorf-inspired charter school besides ours on the mountain this week.
I wasn’t supposed to chaperone this trip. I should have been working, set in my routine. But, this has been a period of shifting for me as well. Our move, the crack in my metacarpal bone -- the plates of our lives have jolted, reshaping the routine. I was the working mother, the one who never had kids over for playdates, who never volunteered in the classroom, who rarely went on field trips. My involvement with school came in bursts, projects that could be taken home, completed in my isolated schedule. That has changed this fall. This morning I looked at my husband. “When was the last weekday that we had all of our children and no one else’s?” “Monday.” “No, last Wednesday.” “No. Wait. That was the day we had…” We finally realized that the answer was, ‘before school started.’ Years ago, when Caitlin was a baby, I attempted stay-at-home-motherhood. I failed. Trapped, bored, depressed, I felt completely inadequate – a failure. But, the fires burn, the plates shift, the crust cracks.
This time around, things have changed. I am surrounded by people living similar lives. My children and their peers have progressed to stages of creativity, eloquence, and curiosity, making them entertaining companions. And, admittedly, I have the luxury of knowing that my hand will heal, and that this phase of my life will pass into memory.
Though each of these moments with my kids – playdates, haircuts, watching small legs pumping the swing slung from the tree in the front yard – has meaning, the memories of this recent foray into the woods will linger long. The sixth grade is, and always has been, a special class. Even within a school of high-energy, bright children, these kids are well-known (notorious?). I have heard them called a “challenging” class, with the tinge to the word that suggests an adversity in the challenge. Challenging? You bet. Like the mountains in which we spent the last 48 hours, they are volatile, rugged, beautiful, and dangerous to take for granted. And well worth the effort to explore. This is a class of leaders; few in this group are docile, few are complacent, and few take anything at face value.
But this is more than a class. Perhaps it is a result of the small class size, maybe it stems from their active and activity-based curriculum, or maybe it is just their nature, but these kids are family. Even now, as the hormones begin to surge beneath the crust of childhood, my daughter and her classmates interact almost more as siblings than as friends. The bonds, the rivalries, the name-calling, and the support against the outside all have the taint and glow of family. Though the faces have shifted in the years that this group has been together, it is difficult in this class to tell the biologic siblings from the scholastic ones.
And yet, the dynamic is changing. The make-believe games of a few years ago have shifted into “Truth or Dare” and “Would You Rather.” On the second night of the trip, the dire phrase “spin the bottle” emanated from one of the larger tents. (Further investigation revealed that the proposed game was “hug spin-the-bottle” because “the real kind is just gross.”) Throughout the trip, the other chaperones and I watched these kids surge between childhood and adolescence – debating the merits of explicit vs. non-explicit downloads from iTunes one moment and finagling marshmallows for breakfast the next. (If your child claims to have roasted marshmallows in the morning, it is a vicious lie; no responsible chaperones would permit that sort of thing!) They are old enough to sleep in tents without an adult and young enough to need reminding to use the bathroom. They set up tents with minimal supervision, yet can’t remember to wear shoes around the campsite. They can hike up a steep trail of cinder and ash, but some are still confused about making (and packing!) their own sandwiches. They are young enough to brave the frigid waters of a mountain lake, but old enough to panic at the scritch of a tent zipper while changing clothes.
Though many in this class have been together for years, this is their first year with this teacher. Although the standard practice in Waldorf schools is for the teacher to matriculate through the grades with the children, through varying flukes of coincidence, this class has never been with the same teacher for more than two years. Mike and I tease Caitlin that Voldemort wanted to teach her class, and so there is a curse. It is a natural fit, though, for them to have a new teacher as they move into adolescence. With this new expansion and turbulence of their minds and bodies, it is fitting, I think, for them to have a new guide, and one who can combine a love of the arts with the strong background in science that they need in order to make sense out of this chaotic world as they shuffle toward the edge of adulthood. In their classroom prep for the Mt. Lassen trip, the kids learned the science behind the forces of magma beneath our feet, and then they created their own myths to explain the Pacific Ring of Fire. From donuts to a god named Tim, we were treated to skits based on these myths on our first night camping near the base of a volcano. There were no lectures while at the park. We visited a museum and interpretive signs along the trails were pointed out, but the only school work was a daily entry into their “field journals.” Geology will continue in the classroom, and the kids will bring to their studies the memories of their experiences – the smell of sulfur from the vents of Bumpass Hell, the crunch of the trail up Cinder Cone, and the smoke of the campfire.