“What’s this tree’s name? C’mon, we just went over it.” I point to a slender tree with gray bark peeling off like wallpaper. The kids look at it uncertainly.
“I know it!” A girl exclaims, tugging on her braid. Her eyes widen in revelation. “A shaggy hickey!”
I look at the shagbark hickory and stifle a laugh. “Not quite.”
Outdoor education is exhausting. Thirteen-hour days filled with sixth graders and mud and “No, that’s not edible!” Mashed potatoes with the consistency of Drano. Thin vinyl mattresses that you slip off of if you forget to put a sheet beneath your sleeping bag. There is never enough food, never enough sleep to fill me up.
This was supposed to be my in-between gig, a brief respite before my next full-throttle adventure. But then the lake water receded, the buds burst on the trees, and I dreamed less and less of faraway places. For the first time in years, I wanted to stay.
“Is Farrow your real name?”
“Do you ever wear make up?”
“Have you actually been to all those places on your water bottle?”
The questions flow ceaselessly. I answer them honestly. Most of the time. The kids distract themselves with their disposable cameras, taking pictures of half-eaten grilled cheese sandwiches and their own muddy boot prints on the tile floor.
“What time is it?”
“What would happen if I accidentally fell into the lake?”
They start off a little shy, uncertain about me as an instructor. But then their caution melts. They smile as I play off of their Vine reenactments. Their eyes widen when I reference the twisted towers from Fortnite. Their eagerness grows as I tell them yes over and over again, boundaries from their daily lives slipping loose, delivering them fresh and breathless into the wild.
Small acts feel like gifts. Can I put mud on my face? Yes. Can I lick this tree? Yes. Can I get my shoes wet? As long as you don’t complain later. The kids splash unceremoniously into creeks and hold salamanders in their hands. Tree branches crack as boys beat them against rocks. Girls rub sand into their hair.
There’s a sense of pride I get from being the one to say yes, the one to give them this tiny sliver of freedom and wildness. How strange that it’s a luxury to get dirty. How odd that climbing rocks feels like a privilege.
“So that’s poison ivy? Can I eat it?”
“How do snakes poop?”
“A crawdad? The counselor over there told me it’s a lobster.”
People say to dream big, but I’m dreaming smaller these days. A clean thermos, a book, and a child brave enough to interrupt me during a lecture to tell me I have a tick on my face all feel like bliss. Some days this is enough.