Aspen High School’s Ex Ed
September 21, 2005
As I shivered in my underwear in a pelting downpour in the La Sal Mountains, I realized – Ex Ed is no vacation. But as I watched a pale white hand smoothing back the wet hair of a shivering Afro-Latino girl, I realized something else … I think we might have accomplished something.The girl, who had forgotten to bring her weatherproof pants, was Mayra Cordoba, and the friend who had helped pull off her cold, wet clothes was an Aspen native, Sarah Nininger. They both participated in Aspen High School’s Experiential Education program this year, “Horses and Amigos.” The goal was to provide a wilderness experience that revolved around horses and a foreign language and culture – English as a “target” language for our Latino students and Spanish as a foreign language for most of our Aspen-born kids.As the face of our Roaring Fork Valley changes, so should our schooling, and specifically our extracurricular activities. Ex Ed is as good a place to start as any.
I started teaching with the Aspen School district in 1980; I was a fresh-faced college graduate who was mighty happy to land a teaching job in a mountain playground. I was hired to teach Spanish and French in the Aspen Middle School. We had a superb Outdoor Education program, but I harbored a secret: I wanted to be part of Experiential Education, or Ex Ed, at Aspen High. The Ex Ed trips, which fanned out across the country, and even foreign lands, were famous and oh-so-cool. Kids set off for a week to learn how to survive mountain storms, brave rough waters in the Caribbean or cycle through the Bay Area. They were traditionally gritty, tough trips where kids learned to bond together and suck it up. Ex Ed fostered self-reliance, especially under adverse conditions.It took me a few years to get there, but now I’m teaching at Aspen High and this is my seventh year being involved with Ex Ed. My trip, “Horses and Amigos,” takes 21 kids – split between Spanish and English speakers – into the rugged La Sal Mountains of eastern Utah, just below tree line on Mount Peale.And yes, we’re on horses. All day. I had inherited the horse trip from our former principal, Kendall Evans, and this year we put a twist on it. As the face of Aspen and our Roaring Fork Valley has changed, I thought maybe Ex Ed should change as well. So I tailored a trip to reflect the cultures and languages of the kids who attend Aspen High School.
When the kids were assigned to our trip, I knew about half of them – Latino students in my English Language Learner and Bilingual American History classes. But then we had to get to know the other half of the group, the English-only, “American” kids. A few spoke or understood some Spanish, but most were starting from scratch and didn’t have a clue what was being said.I wondered if these two groups would ever mix, but we blended them together with some skits and they were off and running, using a linguistic soup of “Spanglish.”By the second night of the trip they were singing Mexican rancheras around the campfire together and playing a bizarre game in a circle called Dippity Dippity Do. (Don’t ask me – I was just relieved to see them laughing and interacting with that wild teenage energy.)So the social aspect of the trip could not have been better. We adults – Aspen police officer Steve Smith, outfitter Phyllis Singleton, teachers Amy Coyle, Susan Woolley and I – were drop-dead exhausted, but these teenagers made human pyramids, danced, roasted marshmallows and bellowed songs, creating a deafening din until the teachers demanded they go to bed in their respective tents.But secretly I smiled.
Built into the trip was the challenge of communicating in another language and getting along together.But there were greater challenges – such as maneuvering horses through tight aspen groves, away from bees’ nests, over creeks, across meadows and up and down hills.And add to that Mother Nature’s challenge: Rain, a continuous downpour that soaked our saddles and sluiced off our ponchos.After three days of intermittent mountain storms, I began to see a pattern emerge.Most of the happiest kids, who were most able to cope, had come through what we used to call the “school of hard knocks.” As the AHS truism goes, “Ex Ed is the great equalizer.”These students, who can laugh and sing in the hail and wind, usually have had a tough or a relatively unsheltered life and manage to thrive. Often they are not the most academically successful kids, or the kids who stand out socially. But they shine in Ex Ed.In our group we had a boy as bald as a billiard ball from a struggle with a brain tumor. We also had a tough and spirited diabetic, a brave girl with limited use of her legs, and other adolescents with diverse afflictions. There were teenagers who had escaped war-torn homelands such as El Salvador seeking a better future.One was Daniel Medrano, who sang “Allá en Rancho Grande” at todo pulmón (top of his lungs) during a fearsome storm, prompting several terrified kids to sing along. I’d finally found a good use for that raucous, loud voice that can be so disruptive in my classroom. Daniel saved the day. (If he can only learn to control it during history class.)
Rochelle Broughton’s family has been in this valley for generations and is part of the old heart of Aspen. She was born with a condition that impairs her hips and legs and she uses a bright purple walker to move about. Yet, with the help of Sopris Therapy, Pat Horowitz and the other good souls who have taught her to love horses, Rochelle has become a skilled rider.In fact, she’s competing in Longmont on Sept. 24-25 in the equestrian events at the Special Olympics.Susan Woolley, an Aspen Elementary teacher, accompanied Rochelle on this trip every step of the way. We constantly brainstormed ways to modify the trip and help ensure her safety.But it seemed Rochelle had the upper hand. She knew exactly what she could and couldn’t do. She also had an uncanny sense of human nature. When I made an announcement at our first organizational meeting, some of the kids turned glum and taciturn.”They’re mad at you, Linda,” observed Rochelle, “because you won’t let them listen to their iPods.”I marveled at her insight. Rochelle was right. Still, this was a trip for the kids to communicate and interact, not to go solo via earphones and isolate themselves.
I watched over the next several days as Rochelle tackled new challenges on horseback. She crossed a stream for the first time, descended a steep hill, fell off once when her horse tripped. She sat on the ground, her legs outstretched, joking with our cowboy guide Don Holyoak.”We talked about this, Linda,” she said, smiling as she saw the apprehension in my eyes. She sat with her legs immobile, but her hands gestured with passion. “I knew I would fall off on this trip. Now I have gone ahead and done it, so I don’t have to worry any more!”Rochelle is probably one of the bravest girls I have ever known. I think Don would agree. He has worked horse wrangling with some of the most famous actors in the business – including a movie with John Wayne – but I detected a softening of his eyes when he registered the bravery and grit of this young teenage rider.
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Ex Ed was never supposed to be easy. An old friend of mine, Griff Smith, likened the Middle School’s Outdoor Ed program to the definition of a challenge: A challenge is when the outcome is unknown.If you know you can do it for sure – well, that’s just not a challenge, is it?Ex Ed is not supposed to be Disneyland in the wild. If you don’t pay attention and put forth your heart, effort and very best ability, you just may fail. The teachers can control a lot of variables, but not all of them.That’s where individual character and “ganas” comes in.If you have ever seen the movie “Stand and Deliver,” you’ll know what “ganas” means. The film is about an exceptional math teacher in one of the poorest schools in East L.A., who takes his calculus class to such unparalleled excellence that every one of them passes the Advanced Placement Exam. The Mexican high school teacher Jaime Escalante tells the Latino kids that if they want to do well in math, they must first have “ganas.” The word means desire, but it also connotes passion – passionate will that can burn a hole through any obstacle in the path to success.I watched several kids who had never ridden a horse succeed. I watched kids communicate in a foreign language – purely because they had a good, healthy dose of “ganas.”
There were a couple of instances when I wondered if we, the teachers, would fail, ganas or not – which brings us to my moment in my underwear in the rain.Just as we reached the corrals in the torrential rains, Mayra, one of the Colombian students, shrieked and fell off her horse into a newly formed pond in the field. One of the other students caught up the reins of her horse. Sophomore Sarah Nininger, teacher Amy Coyle and I got the girl to the Suburban. Mayra was shivering wet and cold, but we were still a long way from the campsite and we had nothing warm to put on her. I stripped off my rain pants, struggled out of my dry jeans and took off my sweater.Sarah helped her pull off her wet clothes and put on my dry ones as Amy tried to get the old vehicle into four-wheel-drive to escape the muddy meadow. The Suburban was one of the oldest in the district’s fleet and stubbornly refused to lock into four-wheel low.I stood in mud, frantically peeling off every layer I had but underwear and a T-shirt and shouted for Sarah to keep Mayra talking and conscious while she warmed up. “I’ve asked her ¿Como estás? about 15 times and I’ve exhausted my Spanish!” Sarah pleaded. I watched her hand stroke the Colombian girl’s forehead with a gentleness and concern that surely was conveyed to the cold student.Amy was finally having some success with the gears, and I jumped in the back and began taking Mayra’s pulse while Sarah held my watch to count the seconds.Suddenly a flock of girls shoved their way into the Suburban, hanging across the back seat and staring down with worry at Mayra. As Mayra’s condition improved and their focus slowly shifted, they stared in open-mouthed shock at their half-naked teacher.But my warm, dry clothes helped do the trick for Mayra. Within a couple of hours, she could be seen laughing and dancing with her friends around the fire.
I know that all of my Latino kids had a great time. They hugged me and thanked me profusely after the trip, and dragged their parents over to chat with me in the parking lot. “Can my friends and I come again next year?” begged Jesus Meza. (You know, I would want a kid like that on any trip!)”It was the best trip ever,” wrote Delma Olave later. “I met more Americans and we laughed and played. We sang rancheras and danced to La Bomba, La Bamba and the Macarena. The funniest time was when we all piled into my tent – there were 10 or 12 of us at once.”Carlos Henriquez said, “This trip was so fun you can’t imagine. Even if you don’t like horses, in the end you will! “Emerson Flores said, “The three things I liked the best were the cowboy food, that I learned to saddle and ride my horse, and my horse became my best friend that week.” (Pretty good for a kid who tumbled on a rocky trail the first day and didn’t want to get back in the saddle.)Not everyone loved horses at the end, but I think that the respect for another culture was a goal every one came to terms with. American kids who had admitted before the trip to being “scared of Mexicans” made the most progress, in my estimation. I’ve got the photos and memories to prove it!
Rochelle’s grandmother Jackie was the first one I hugged as I stumbled out of the Suburban, stinking of campfire smoke and sweat after a week without a shower. I realized how much a trip like this meant to Rochelle and how much Rochelle’s courage meant to me.Each student had his or her challenges, and met them. As I said goodbye to Chelsey Hanle and her father, Chelsey exclaimed how hard the camping had been.”Not as hard as your solo in eighth grade,” her father reminded her.”Harder,” she said, collapsing into the front seat of the car.We’ve done our job, I thought wearily. I barely had the energy to put the Suburban in reverse and head back to the bus barn. We had pushed the kids as hard as we could and brought them back safely. That’s what we were going for.As for the rest of the kids, I hope that they got something beneficial out of the experience, however uncomfortable. Maybe an appreciation for horses, language, the Latino or American culture, or just some fun times and memories.
Most of all, I hope they were challenged. And that they’ll remember Ex Ed is no vacation.Linda Lafferty is a freelance writer and ELL/Bilingual teacher at Aspen High School.