An uphill hike to self-discovery

Troubled Baltimore teens rough it in the W. Va. wilderness to face their toughest challenge yet - themselves

November 12, 2006|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,Sun Reporter

Everything seemed ready that bright morning. The sub-zero sleeping bags, the fluorescent orange fleece jackets, the double sets of heavy-duty long underwear and the baggies of spare tinder - all that 13 teenagers and four adults would need for five late October days of primitive camping - waited in the school yard, set to go.

But where were the kids?

Several, it seemed, had fled the grounds of Hampden's Independence School to forage for butter cream doughnuts, cigarettes and other necessities they feared might be scarce in the West Virginia woods.

Another boy was hiding in a classroom, prostrate on a table and whispering, "I don't want to go; I don't want to go," over and over into his folded arms. Still others ran willy-nilly through the halls, shoving and cursing at their teachers and slamming doors and howling like wild things.

Michelle DeBruin surveyed her riotous charges with the serene smile that is her trademark. Such behavior was precisely why the children needed the woods, why she was about to lead a class most teachers wouldn't take to the Maryland zoo into the wilds of the Monongahela National Forest - and why she had helped make camping part of a public school's curriculum in the first place. This group, the 10th grade, was by far the most challenging in a school for challenging children: they were hyperactive, defiant, even occasionally violent - one 10th-grader was stabbed near his home not long ago. Most were new to the school this year and hadn't been on a trip before, and the young teacher knew that the camping program would be a triumph if they made it through the week.

If.

"I just wanted to let you know that I saw wool sweaters and long underwear in the classroom," she calmly warned the students, who, a few minutes before departure time, had at last been rounded up into a ragged circle on the school lawn. "It'll be 27 degrees tonight, and it will feel colder."

Several trudged back inside.

It was hard to help them understand the outdoors. Like many low-income city kids, they'd barely been outside Baltimore. The extent of one boy's travels was a tenderly recalled trip to Six Flags, and Michelle had met some who'd never left the neighborhoods where they'd been born. Most hailed from the school's working-class Hampden surroundings; others took buses from the city's worst areas. Many had never seen a night sky not obscured by urban lights, or heard total silence. Nature was simply not a part of their world.

Recently, she had asked one of her classes to plot out the milestones of their lives, and they'd come up with a grim timeline stretching from birth to death, and punctuated by events like growing a beer belly and developing wrinkles. Experimenting with sex and drugs came before learning to drive.

What she and the other teachers wanted for these children was a rite of passage, and that's what the year-old camping curriculum - called the Wilderness Art Initiative - was designed to be. After five hard days on the trail, kids accustomed to failing returned jubilant, and with the sense that the rest of the world was conquerable, too.

She wasn't worried about the forecast. In fact, things were going better than planned. All 13 students - 11 boys and two girls - had shown up on their own and obediently relinquished their medicine and inhalers so Michelle could administer them as needed. The kids kept complaining, but nonetheless helped the teachers pack the gear into two minivans and a pickup truck, then climbed in themselves.

They were headed for a place called the Dolly Sods, a windswept, heath-like region where birch and mountain ash grow. Some consider it one of the loveliest parts of the East Coast.

That first night, there was even the promise of light, transforming snow.

The journey

The 4 1/2 -hour drive - plus four pit stops - into the mountains went beautifully. Sure, the children had stunned the patrons of a Keyser, W.Va., gas station by buying snacks with their ski masks on, then leaping up and down on one of their minivans until it bounced to the beat of Usher's "Bad Girl," and freak-dancing in the parking lot.

And true, at one point a boy had blasted his safety whistle in the ear of one of the minivan drivers, who somehow managed not to veer off the road, though it grew increasingly narrow and treacherous as the little caravan wound over the Appalachian foothills, and the snow began to fall.

But the kids were abuzz with the boundless energy that was part of why Cranston Dize - a loud, towering 28-year veteran of the city school system who was behind the wheel of the pickup truck - likes teaching troubled students best, and why three years ago he'd helped to start the Independence School .

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