Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A School At "The End Of The World"

In yesterday's post, I discussed the minimalist interior of an Icelandic preschool called Kaldársel, which I described as being located in an old farm house at the "end of the world."

It felt like that because our group of four foreign preschool teachers were the last ones left on the Play Iceland bus and we had been driving on a winding gravel road through a classic Icelandic landscape for quite some time before finally stopping at this solitary building. As we stepped from the bus we were attacked by a fierce, cold, wet wind that swept across that flat landscape unobstructed. My first thought was that I'd underdressed.

The teachers spied us through the window and waved us around the building. That's when we saw the river, a shallow thing that dog-legged right up to the school, complete with a small water fall. These kids had their own river!

We spent the next half hour or so indoors, where our host guided us through a powerpoint orientation, then we were told, "We're going outside now. We'll be out there for at least two hours." 

We'd been advised to pack rain pants, which I'd done, but had intentionally, and foolishly, left them behind when this Seattle boy had determined from the comfort of his Reykjavik hotel room that this wasn't "real rain." As we bundled up, the teachers took one look at us and said, "We have extra pants for you to use." In yesterday's post, I mentioned traveling light. Well for all the benefits, one of the downsides is that if you get your only pair of pants wet, you're wearing them wet until they dry on your body, so needless to say, I was quite grateful for the rain pants. As it turns out, it's quite common for Icelandic schools to provide wet/cold weather over-clothes for their teachers.

The children made no fuss about bundling up. Indeed, one of the most common comments among Play Iceland participants, whatever schools they visited, was that we heard very little whining or complaining from children around anything, be it bundling up, eating unfamiliar food, or doing worksheets (and we did see some of that). Of course, that may have had to do with the fact that we don't understand the language, but at least we didn't see any of the teachers engage in those long negotiations so common in American settings.

We set out on a hike together. Along the way we were shown the ruins of an abandoned sheep fold where the children sometimes play. Another group on the following day played with the children in the ruins of a farm house, "rusty nails and everything." As we walked, a teacher pointed out for me a forest  in the distance that they sometimes visit. She said it took about a half hour to hike there.

And this wasn't easy hiking. So much of the cracked and broken Icelandic landscape looks to me like it was molten lava just yesterday. As we picked our way from rock to rock, always watching out for holes into which a child could easily fall or in which an adult could easily break a leg, the children chattered. I could have sworn they were birds, a thought that recurred to me each time I heard kids speaking the Icelandic language. Perhaps the teachers were cautioning the children, but it sure didn't sound like it. Everyone but we visitors had clearly done this before.

After about 20 minutes we came upon a hole under the lava that was larger than those we'd previously seen. It was a cave, "a 100 meter cave," and we were going in. The children equipped themselves with headlamps. We adults were encouraged to use our smartphones to light the way. Tourists pay good money to be shown lava caves in Iceland, but nothing can possibly top being guided by four and five year olds. It was much darker than most of my photos indicate because of the flash. The terrain was rugged. The walls were damp. There were places so narrow that had I been on my own, I'd have turned back. The ceiling was low enough that we big people were forced to duck, even crouch in parts.

At one point the children started to shout something. When we asked, we were told they were calling for the trolls. As I mentioned last week, polls show that 80 percent of Icelanders believe in fairies. They also believe in trolls and even adults speak of them without any hint of mockery.

We stopped for a snack of orange slices and bananas, then headed back to the farmhouse, the dark cave having been our only respite from the cold, wind and rain. Back there, the children got busy in the river or playing on the mossy rocks or building with a pile of lumber, which, along with a few pots and pans, were the only "toys" in this wild, natural place.

Our entire group was beyond impressed. Gobsmacked would probably be a better word. 

Everyone went indoors for lunch, although we were told by the group that visited on the second day when the weather was a little less Icelandic, that there was normally an outdoor dining option. We ate fish and rice, simple and hearty. I sat beside a boy who had the fork and knife skills of an adult. I took advantage of having a teacher with us to translate, asking him, "Have you ever seen a troll?"

"No, but I know their house is the cave."

"How do you know?"

"I can smell them."

"What do they smell like?"

"They don't bathe."

After lunch, most of us spent the rest of the day outdoors, getting cold and wet and having a blast.

The Woodland Park Cooperative School does not have a lava cave, nor do we have a river, sheep fold ruins, a forest, or the luxury of a natural place where cars and other hazards of modern life are so remote as to not to be a concern. Kaldársel has no fences and the children can roam as far and wide as they care to. We have fences.

While I envy them all of that, it does me no good to wish our school anywhere but where it is, in the middle of a city. We are an urban school and our "natural habitat" is dictated by that. I've written before about how I fear that our selfish love of nature, our desire to push farther and farther into it, making it even more remote, is destroying it. I love nature enough to live in a city and I do believe that ever-denser cities are at least part of the answer to making sure our world does not become completely uninhabitable for humans. We have plenty of natural wonders around here, indeed, I feel I live in god's country, but I'm not going to load our city kids on busses and take them to the end of the world each day.

I love everything about what I saw of Kaldársel, but as I've reflected on my experience there I've asked myself not "Why can't we be a nature school?" but rather, "What is our lava cave?" Where can we go on a 20 minute hike through our urban terrain fraught at least as many hazards and challenges as an Icelandic landscape? I mean, we have a troll living under the Aurora Bridge which is only a block away from our front door. We've visited local chocolate factories and music shops and bakeries and breweries, both on foot and by bus, all within the same 30 minute range as the Kaldársel forest or 100 meter cave. Sometimes we even visit the remnants of forests that still exist in our large city parks.

Our schools cannot all be the same, nor should they be. They each exist to serve a community of families and my community has chosen to live in the city. Our school will always reflect that, but what I've brought home from Kaldársel is that we could do a much better job of going outside our fences and making our neighborhood our school.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great piece of writing, I really liked the way you highlighted some really important and significant points. Thanks so much, I appreciate your work.

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