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Esfuerzo – We Did It

Thanks to the dedicated teachers at Lowell Elementary – Ms. Fernandez, Ms. Sierra, Ms. Valle, Ms. Perez, Ms. Martinez, among others – the bus drivers Patty, Raphael, Jose, and Maria, Tene at OC Parks, our amazing students and our field educators – Cameron, Joanne, Sara and Dulce – we pulled out of the years-long COVID restrictions and hosted 202 students and 26 adults, as we closed this school year.

Like a breath of fresh air, students, teachers and field educators finally got a chance to share the trails together again.

… and we didn’t have to face someone with a loaded gun.

Ms. Joanne with student holding a deer pelt

As much as this should be a happy story, it can’t be. This past Friday, Laguna Canyon Foundation hosted its last field trip on the heels of the unspeakable horror in Uvalde, Texas.

At the foot of Stagecoach South trailhead, waiting for the school bus to arrive on Friday’s cool, overcast morning, I thought about how I’m expected and prepared to provide a safe, educational and fun experience for the children. I’m CPR and wilderness first-aid trained. I know what to do for anything from a scraped knee to a snake bite to a heart attack. I carry a first aid kit and extra water in my backpack and my phone is programmed with emergency contacts and rangers’ cell phone numbers.

But there is nothing in my backpack that can protect against a loaded gun.  I’m not trained to fight a gunman. If that happened, what would I do?  Charge the gunman with my first aid scissors? Grab the children near me – as the children not in my grasp are sacrificed – hit the dirt and lay on top of them? Would any of the phone numbers be helpful in this situation? How many children would I be able to save?

I shared with my fellow educators waiting with me, not these awful thoughts, but simply that my heart was heavy, which of course, they were feeling too.  Thankfully, we provided each other with the support we needed before the bus arrived and we set our angst aside, if only for a few hours.

This was going to be a happy morning.

Our last field trip of the school year was magical.  Mrs. Martinez, eight months pregnant with her second child, had taught her students well. Just like the students at Uvalde, they are finishing fourth grade.  They are 10 years old.  They were polite, inquisitive and thoughtful. They stayed safe, following our instructions to remain on the trail, not touch anything unless they asked first, and to be the “gooey middle of an Oreo cookie” by staying between the “crunchy outsides” of the hike leader and the hike sweep.  My group even kept a secret I told them until they made sure it was ok with me to share with Ms. Martinez.

Ms. Paula sharing a bobcat skull with the students

On the way back from Barbara’s Lake, one student asked me, “How long did it take you to learn about all these plants and animals?  How old are you?”

What an opening!  We were able to talk about her interests in science and math. I told her how old I was, 64, and that it’s really not a factor of age.  “You are very smart,” I said. “You can learn these plants and animals similarly to the way you learn about your classmates.  You learn your classmates’ names, then maybe you learn what their favorite food is, and then you might even learn what sports they like to play.”

We reviewed what she had remembered from the hike so far:  that the mule deer only eats plants, that the prickly pear’s fruit is called a tuna and that the sycamore leaf is soft on its underside, providing a great resource for birds to make nests.

As we walked shoulder to shoulder, quietly observing nature, the distinct aroma of a coyote gourd rising, I hoped beyond hope that she will make it to her sixties and beyond without ever experiencing the heartbreak the Uvalde community will have to endure.

In these troubling times it’s hard for the educators not to just hug every student that attends, blessed by their beautiful young spirits, eager to learn, a tad rowdy, for sure, and excited to be outdoors. But COVID, among other factors, prevents that.

For now, the educators and I remain grateful to have spent time with Edgar, Pilar, Arlet, Niko and all the students, parents and teachers who make our days so rich.

Featured photo:  Ms. Dulce pointing out tunas on prickly pear cactus.

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