Some of the fifth grade went on a long hike last Saturday morning. Twenty three kids set out to complete a loop on Mount Tam. Cloudless cobalt skies and a sweet breeze said hello as kids stumbled off the grimy yellow bus. After some work with a map, we got ourselves to the head of the trail.

From the beginning of the day, our designated leader, Clint, a park naturalist  mapped the route and walked it in advance to clear fallen branches. He knew how to get us there and back. We set out at 11:00AM with a planned route of eight miles. What happened next had less to do with hiking and more to do with how people figure out who gets to lead and who gets to follow.

Clint tended to ask-rather-than-tell: Which way do you guys want to go? Do you want to stop for a minute?  He pointed out native flowers popping up everywhere, and checked on us each half mile to make sure that the group had gotten lost. He had three rules: Follow me. See beautiful vistas. Enjoy the outdoors.

However, by  the fourth mile, Steven, a sinewy brown-haired boy with top-of-the-line boots, stepped to the front of the pack. Front my vantage point, I watched as he thundered by the leader. In a couple of minutes he distanced himself from the group. Clint called him back once, then twice. Steven returned, pouted, and then repeated the same sequence.

Clint brought us down a left fork in the trail. The “kid’ had again stepped in front, and didn’t see us turn. So, our boney-kneed naturalist looked at me and lifted his cap. I gave him a thumbs up and waved him on. We both knew that a little-man lesson had begun to unfold.

I stepped off the trail and out of sight. Ten minutes passed before I heard a thump thump. Steven thundered past me, brown eyes wide and his face torqued. Scared enough to wet his pants, the kid would be the last to admit as much.

I fell in behind and caught up in time to see him passing other hikers once more. When Steven stepped out to take the lead, Clint raised his pale arm and prevented Steven from going on. Hey, don’t touch me, Steven said.  Clint looked down at him, paused, and told him to step to the back.

Our route isn’t on the map. You won’t know which turns to take. You need to follow.

Clint had no hint of humor in his face. He looked at Steven and said ‘now’. The kid gritted his teeth, dropped back, sulked, and did not speak for the rest of the day.

Beautiful lessons come when they need to. What would I do if I were in the deep woods with this boy, stuck with him on my team, wanting to keep him – and everyone else – safe? Would I  allow him to wander off and figure things out the natural way? Would I go toe-to-toe and stand him down?

Since the stubborn child in each of us can rise at any time, practicing where the risks are fewer is an essential part of learning how we fit. We stepped off the playground and hooked up with a leader who understood more than how to read a map and get us there and back – He also knew that if he failed, someone, somehow, would pay.

Sun, and gratitude. Both combined to make the day a true keeper.


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