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School in nature

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As a crowd of parents and students gathered in front of the elementary school early one Saturday morning, I snapped pictures. Anna posed with five of her fellow classmates. She smirked as the camera clicked. Nervous and tearful at home, she now appeared cool and confident, despite the din of school yard chaos around her. Students rolled luggage toward a large transit bus, while parents handed over medications and permission slips and younger siblings and a few pets ran around the makeshift parking lot. Radek bent down to Anna at face level to tell her sweetly to have fun. Then his tone turned serious, and he told her above all else to mind her teacher.

Before I could give Anna any words of wisdom of my own, I realized that she had already stowed her luggage and was waiting with her best friend to hop on the bus. Barely giving me time to give her a final kiss, Anna slipped aboard beside the after-school teacher, who was laden with a guitar and a mesh bag of balls. With a line of parents flanking both sides of the bus, we stood and waved as the teachers did their final headcounts. Anna’s face grew graver the longer the bus stood motionless, finally a few tears slipped down her cheeks. Her friend began to cry, too. But when the bus finally lurched into motion, Anna bravely clutched her Raggedy Ann doll, gave a last wave and then didn’t look back.

Along with the sixty other students from the first, third, and fourth grades, Anna was headed for škola v přirodě, “school in nature.” For most first graders like Anna, this trip would be an initiation into the Czech rite of passage of spending a week away from home with her school class. The trip differs from school to school and even from teacher to teacher. While some Czech friends claim their children actually worked in textbooks during the week, others reported that their children’s week away had focused on outdoor physical play and cultural education, such as a ropes course and tours of historic regional spots like castles, bell towers and churches.

Anna’s class was to be lodged in a large mountain cottage in the Krkonoše Mountains. During the stay, three classroom teachers were supervising the children as well as one after-school teacher, plus the staff at the accommodation. We’d paid CZK 3,800 for the week, which included food and board. The children were to sleep four to a room, and Anna had already agreed with several friends to share a room together. We’d received a detailed list of what to pack, including clothes and textbooks, as well as personal items like games and small toys. Spring weather in the mountains is unpredictable, and Czechs typically dress their children on the warm side, so the list included everything from winter coats and rain boots to a pair of shorts, sunglasses and a sunhat. We were also instructed to give the children pocket money for the canteen where they could buy drinks and snacks.

I knew that škola v přirodě was an exciting and special part of every Czech school year. Still I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that Anna was now ready to participate. Although she’d happily attended several years of summer day camps and was quite independent when she stayed with her babička, this was the first time she’d be away for seven days. I wondered about simple things like how she would wash her hair and pull it back in the morning and how she would managing the care of her own bathroom hygiene. Not to mention how she’d handle being homesick without family around to comfort her. Having one teacher to care for the needs of twenty first-graders seemed a giant responsibility. When I expressed my hesitation to Anna’s teacher, she misunderstood my concerns as wondering how I’d survive the week without Anna as my right-hand helper, instead of me wondering how Anna would survive without us.

As I chatted with my neighbors and other Czech mothers whose children had already experienced škola v přirodě, they encouraged me to relax. One teacher friend with many years of experience chaperoning school overnight trips told me that it was good that Anna’s first-grade class would go with the older classes. Everyone helps the first-graders; it’s just the way it always is. Still, she confessed that she and her husband hadn’t known whether to send their son when he was in first grade because he’d been such a homebody. In the end, he’d gone and had returned, if not elated, at least none the worse for wear. Another mother told me that her daughter’s class always went by themselves and that was a great bonding experience. Other mothers reminded me to mail postcards to Anna from our family, one-a-day, and to mail the first one at least a day before the trip. Last year, one mother’s son had been the only child not to receive a letter until the second day. He’d been gravely disappointed. Although I’d sent Anna with self-addressed stamped envelopes for writing home as the teacher had instructed, stupidly it’d never occurred to me that I’d need to write her too.

When I first mentioned Anna’s upcoming adventure to my parents back home, my mother had been apprehensive. As I described the tradition, she’d voiced many of the same questions about safety and hygiene that’d already run through my mind. She recounted a recent school field trip in my hometown where the elementary school’s fourth-grade class had visited Colonial Williamsburg. The school had taken two adult volunteers for every one child, and one parent had told my mother that she’d never have let her daughter go if she hadn’t been a volunteer chaperone. That amount of supervision seemed a little excessive to me, still if I’d been that fourth-grade teacher, I’m certain I’d have been grateful for every pair of extra hands. Anna’s debut trip to school in nature created quite a story among my mother’s circle of friends, with everyone wondering how she’d fare and what stories she’d return to tell. I sent Anna with a self-addressed stamped postcard for my parents as well so they’d be able to hear her experiences first-hand.

As I stood and watched the bus pull away, I felt nervousness mixed with a sense of pride. I was comforted by Anna’s brave attitude at departure and I had a good intuition about the week to come. I knew her absence at home would be keenly felt, particularly by her younger brothers. Although I might not have felt the same sending her on a field trip back in the US under similar conditions, it was impossible to compare. I trusted the Czech tradition and institution and I believe it helped foster respect for nature and interest in travel that many of our Czech friends maintain throughout their adult lives. Although I might not have been ready for this early foray into independence, I wasn’t about to hold Anna back. With any luck, the week away would be good for us both. Still, I know my heart is going to skip a beat each time I make the trip out to the mailbox, anxious to see if Anna will have had the time to send us a message.

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