A Personal Reflection, Recalling John Telford’s Keynote Presentation at the Horwoord/Canadian Student Outdoor Education Conference
Ten years ago I submitted my application for a grade 12 outdoor education program that a friend of my Dad’s, Mike, (or Elroy as came to call him) was facilitating. Once accepted, I confidently showed up on day one with my family canoe tripping experience in mind, wearing second-hand wool attire, and beaming with eagerness to show my new peers my passion for camping. Quickly realizing my classmates each had their own strengths that I admired and envied over, I became captivated by each and every individual in my cohort in one form or another. I recently consulted my journal to reflect on some of these feelings, but unfortunately I don’t have much recollection or written records of the activities we participated in that fostered these deep and lasting emotions. Instead, I began to consider maybe it was less about the educational activities and more to do with some other aspect of the program that facilitated such deep and lasting emotions. I embarked on a process of realizing that I was unaware of the most meaningful elements of my outdoor education experience, and that I may not have even had the words or capacity to capture what I was experiencing at the time. The space that Elroy created to foster connections and relationships ran so deep that it was inherent to the program. Moreover, this experiential learning opportunity landed in our lives as we were in the midst of the young adult journey of exploring romance, sexuality, and friendship in intimate and deeply meaningful ways. “We were so in love with each other”. I believe Elroy knew this would happen. And he used this to intentionally and subtly shape significant life experiences to foster lasting teachable moments.
I am reflecting on this experience for several reasons. First, in November of 2019 I attended a ceremony that honoured my mentor, and the community leader, teacher, father, brother, and husband that Elroy was, as it marked the 10th year since his passing in 2009 – 5 months after my outdoor education program came to an end. This event ignited a much-needed healing process for me, as I had put many of these memories and feelings on pause after Elroy died. Consulting my journal from this time was part of this healing process. In addition, the end of 2019 marked other significant events: I was entering my last semester as an undergraduate (for the second time), I would be completing a thesis investigating outdoor play, and I was accepted to present at an outdoor education conference in January with my Dad. Further, this all felt like a rebirth of sorts, as I resurrected hobbies and interests that I had not engaged in for 10 years, such as writing songs, enduring winter camping, and embarking on a women’s wilderness adventure. I was re-experiencing these, but this time with intention and precision (see previous post for details; consider also: Stacey’s “spiralized curriculum” and the adapted Learning Cycle images below). I welcomed 2020 with excitement and anticipation (much like the naive and tender feelings experienced at the start of outdoor education 10 years prior) as I had been accepted into a leadership intensive cohort for January, would be registering as an early childhood educator this summer, and was beginning graduate studies in the fall. I felt as though previous versions of myself were integrating and synthesizing into a fresh, well-rounded, and multifaceted woman; I was “generalizing” my previous learnings, so to speak.
And then, mid-January, during day one at the leadership intensive training, my new framework and vision stalled. We had completed a strengths assessment and were engaged in discussion about identities. We were encouraged to think of “different ways of being, knowing, and doing, as we move in and out of claiming various identities”. This idea both validated and challenged my recent understanding that I was experiencing a “coming into myself”. I started to instead consider what it would feel like to “come out”, which made me feel even more confused. I reflected on my previous Indigenous roommate who taught me the meaning of “two-spirit” and the intersection of this identity with veganism. Yet the heteropatriarchy ran so deep that through the intimacy and romance and obsession we shared with each other, never once did I let myself consider the love we experienced. But their life-lessons and teachings live on in very personal ways. Whether or not I choose to claim the identities of straight, bisexual, bipolar, female, educator, yogi, skier, songwriter, blogger, photographer, researcher, songwriter, and/or learner, I will critically consider all of these journeys as part of who I continue to become.
When I arrived for day one at the outdoor education conference with my Dad , I realized I had never envisioned “returning home” to this facet of my life. Tainted and jarred by Elroy’s passing, and magnified in feeling from reconnecting with people from his life, I felt confused about how this conference fit into my current and past journeys. I spent that whole weekend absorbed with ideas and picking out the pieces of the program that were reflected in my own outdoor education experience 10 years prior. I started to understand some of Elroy’s intentionality pertaining to the shared deep connection with my peers, and this helped me make peace with my long healing process surrounding Elroy’s death. As one teacher presented about the outdoor education program he was running, he mentioned purchasing only enough beanbag chairs for half the class, in order to facilitate problem-solving, intimacy, and sharing. He discussed the benefits and challenges of running such a program, and finished off by sharing that “you don’t know when it will come back… but something challenging needed to happen” (referring to alumni of the program returning to give back in some form or another). I felt that this made sense of my own returning to outdoor education 10 years later, and was validating that the process takes time. This further inspired me to reach out to the educator teaching that program and offer to volunteer with the students during this semester. This is likely both an element of healing and a “returning home”. Although this conference and reaching out process started to help me make sense of and make peace with some aspects of my identity journey and the intersection with outdoor education/experiential learning, there were still missing links. It wasn’t until I attended a second – unplanned – outdoor education conference this past weekend, this time for students, that truly was able to process all of this.
I showed up, again, for yet another day one experience – this time with less anticipation and a little more intentional curiousity – on January 31st, for the spontaneous student conference. By the first evening gathering I found myself engaged in a deep discussions with 4 other women about environmental activism and politics. No “real adult” had facilitated this discussion, and, going home that night, I realized that tomorrow was a force to be reckoned with. Sure enough, bright and early, we were sharing “good mornings” after knowing each other for less than 12 hours, and discussing headaches and anxieties about day two. We asked each other about our intentions for attending the day’s workshops, and when we ended up at the same ones, we again found ourselves in conversations about everything from the implications of defacing a Sir John A. Macdonald statue and decolonization, to food sustainability, ethical dilemmas, time spent in Africa, and mental health. A good educator, I realized, (like the outdoor education/experiential learning experts who facilitated the student conference) fosters “enduring knowledge for life”, is curious with others, and makes appropriate space for memory-making. Such memory-making likes in meaning-making by way of evoking feelings of fascination with people, places, or things – including others who share similar knowledge and passions, and yet are uniquely strong and brave. Meaning is fostered during shared, yet, ordinary moments such as teeth brushing, meal eating, and laughter. We know that all great environmental advocates shared 2 main things: a special place in nature where significant time was spent, and a trusted adult/mentor. I am starting now to wonder whether another key ingredient is the serendipitous romance of exploration, and the fascination created from learning with/from others. Specifically, I wonder whether the element of “romance” is literal.
In the past, when I returned from outdoor education and experiential learning adventures such as tree planting, living in Africa, or camping in BC, I had a hard time reconciling my experiences with the norms of Canadian society. I remember feeling alienated from my own culture. I have come to understand that when significant life experiences foster meaningful memories with others, we fall in love with each other in ways that are not recognized in our conventional, colonial world. Something magical happens when you are given space to share hard work and meaningful moments, and also when we have the time to stumble upon conversation that is both safe and challenging. I believe that prioritizing relationship-building and intentional, teachable moments is the magic that creates the reflective learning process occurring in education, sports, and experiential learning programs.
On our final day together this weekend at the student conference, I reflected on the way in which I had embraced January’s arrival with a keen sense of adventure and with intentions of peace-making – but what I did not expect was to make new best friends in less than 48 hours despite feeling like I have no idea who I am or what identities I can claim. At the end of this weekend, as we were saying goodbyes, the last thing I expected was to have a group of 3 women run back to me to give me one last hug. I’m so in love with these women all over again, and so grateful for what we learned from each other. This romance reassures me that no matter my claimed identities, I can be loved and love others throughout learning and healing journeys.
“A person who is quiet, works hard, and keeps their head down and paddles all day has a huge impact on everybody else. The person who does this in the classroom does not have the same effect.”John Telford, 2020.