'Dear Becky ... You Know Everything About Nature!'
College Student Rebecca Niemlec spent her summer designing curicula and
taking students outdoors with the Chapter's Inner-City Outings Committee
photo by Joe Young
The sun was setting over the horizon, casting a pink hue over the vast blue ocean before us. A cool breeze whipped over the rolling hills and blew past me, rustling our tents. The students began walking out from the brush to join me at the campsite and sat next to me silently, meditatively.
“So, how was it?” I broke the silence that engulfed us as the last of the five students grabbed his sweatshirt and sat next to me. The high school students, who were from underserved parts of inner city Los Angeles, had just finished their first wilderness solos in which they had to stay by themselves in nature for an hour and write a letter to their future selves. They were on their first backpacking trip, and several of them had never spent a night outdoors in their life.
“This place just makes you feel so small,” one of the students said quietly, brushing her black hair from her face and squinting into the sunlight, “so insignificant. I just realized I was nothing. I haven’t done anything.” Several of the others nodded in agreement.
“But at the same time,” a boy next to her began, “While I realized I was nothing, I also realized that there was so much I can do… and be in the future. It made me happy. I’ve never thought about that before.”
“Yeah,” the boy next to him exclaimed as he suddenly lit up. “It’s so beautiful here. I want to wake up somewhere like here every morning. I had never thought before about what I actually want to do… like I can do what I want to do.”
I thought about these students’ words for a long time after the backpacking trip. I couldn’t imagine them thinking they were nothing. They were smart; many of them were in all AP classes. They were bright, athletic, and had leadership qualities. And they all had dreams. One wanted to go to Gabon, Africa. Another wanted to go to Dartmouth one day and study environmental engineering. Another wanted to go to grad school. I told them that they could do these things, but to them their dreams were so different from their everyday reality. When I told them, “One day you will go to Africa,” they shut down and became silent.
It was as if they had been taught by life that their dreams and reality did not intersect because they are nothing. And thus they began to truly believe that.
In my work with ICO, I began to realize that this is the most dangerous thing that poverty does: It tells you that you are nothing. And this is exactly why Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings exists, to let students imagine life another way. It lets students know, by taking them on outdoor trips, that there is a group of people who think that they are indeed someone. By doing something outside their urban neighborhoods, they began to realize, like my students during their solo reflections, that maybe their dreams and realities can co-exist.
I was able to work with Los Angeles Inner City Outings on two different projects, both of which were designed to motivate and empower students as well as teach them about nature.
This backpacking trip was the culmination of one project. I worked with high school students in a green club in an inner-city school to help them apply for volunteer opportunities and summer internships. I also provided general mentoring during after-school sessions once a week.
The second was a pilot project called ICO Science Outdoors, which focused on giving elementary and middle-school students an opportunity to engage in outdoor science labs. The idea was for them to make the connections between science and the natural world. Through my internship, I designed and implemented an outdoor science curriculum based on the California Science Standards; this involved teaching pre- and post-excursion lessons in the classroom, and leading lessons out in the field.
In one seventh-grade class, the teacher and I set up nine different plants that the students had to observe and then guess what potential adaptations those plants might have.
I wandered from group to group and noticed how, at first, students would just draw a picture of the plant and give up or raise a hand and ask me why these plants were special.
I would respond by asking them what they noticed about the plant that was particularly interesting, and we would go back and forth, me questioning and them observing. By the time the students got to their fourth plants, they were raising their hands excitedly to tell me that the plant they were looking at probably lived in the sun or the shade or had certain herbivore defenses.
I will never forget the greeting I received one day from a bunch of elementary school students, who all remembered my name and rushed to give me hugs. They handed me a wad of thank you letters from the field trip I had led for them several weeks earlier. Here are some highlights from those letters:
“Dear Becky, It was cool to see a lizard, a big ant, coyote, deer, and a red tail hawk. This was the best hike ever and the best experience!”
“Dear Becky, I don’t know all of the things about Griffith Park but I know you are the best teacher ever, because you know everything about nature. I love nature very very much. It is the best thing in the world. It is so peaceful when you are very quiet you can see animals.”
Leaving these students was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. But I left Los Angeles Inner City Outings with the important realization that helping others feel like they really are somebody is one of the things that makes me find my own light.
“Find your light” by contributing to ICO at http://angelesico.org/ and attend our fun fund-raiser at the Magic Castle on June 3.