At yesterday’s weekly whole-school meeting, the video announcements included an extended slideshow from the recent Annual Junior College Road Trip that took students on visits to the in-state universities and camping at the Grand Canyon. In the slideshow was a picture of Victor sitting at the very end of the Bright Angel Trail, staring pensively down at the Colorado River. He had hiked around 7 miles to that spot and was taking a well-deserved break. When his image appeared on the screen, he quickly looked for me in the crowd. I knew he was looking for me because I was looking for him too. We locked eyes across the room and shared a deep appreciation for what had transpired during our hike in and out of the Grand Canyon.
Exactly two weeks prior to this whole-school meeting, 20 self-selected students and 3 teachers began our descent down the Bright Angel Trail. We were full of optimism and energy thanks to a good night’s sleep…and pop tarts. The hike down, as it always is, was fast and gorgeous and full of laughter and conversation. At the end of the Bright Angel, where we took our extended break before the long haul to the top, Victor was enjoying his photographic pensive moment and was, literally, exhausted. He called me over and said “Eve, now what are we gonna do?” I turned around and pointed to the South Rim, looming up high in the distance, “We’re going back up there, Victor”. He looked crestfallen, with very little belief that he would make it to the top.
Of the 20 students that went down into the canyon that morning, 19 made it out by dinner time. Victor, the other 2 teachers, and I took our time, to put it mildly. Victor struggled, taking frequent breaks to catch his breath. A park ranger gave Victor his hiking poles. My colleagues and I shared stories and snacks. We had glow sticks. It got cold and dark. We sang the Gilligan’s Island theme song as the full moon rose, providing much-needed light. By 11:00 that night, we made it out of the canyon and, since dinner was long over, we ate pop tarts again. Victor could not believe what he had accomplished, as he gave each of us a hug that night before collapsing into his tent. But there was no denying it; he had 3 witnesses.
A couple of days after the hike, my colleagues and I wondered together if we had made a mistake. We talked about a fitness test that kids would be required to take next year prior to being allowed on the long hike. We imagined a training regiment that kids would need to participate in a few weeks leading up to the trip. But I know that Victor would never have gone on that hike with any of those things in place. What Victor accomplished that day in the Grand Canyon far surpassed the beliefs he had in his own ability to do so, not to mention his physical capabilities.
As educators, we have students each year that are full of self-doubt. We say “now we are going to read this novel” and they say “yeah right”. We say “now we are going to learn this mathematical formula”; they don’t believe us. Their disbelief comes from years of experience, from trying and failing, or from being too overwhelmed to even try at all. Sometimes the caring adults in schools need to take the lion’s share of believing. We have to do more than believe in our kids; we have to believe for them. This is, perhaps, the most exhausting part of our job. But when we choose to believe for our students that the seemingly impossible is indeed possible, and we bear witness as they struggle toward their accomplishments, the results are stunning.
Whether or not Victor decides to do more hiking in his life is debatable. But I am sure that Victor will now have the confidence to do more things that he previously would have considered impossible, thanks to the pop tarts, the ranger’s hiking poles, the professor and Mary Ann, and the relentless belief that his teachers held for him as he achieved the impossible.