A few months ago at Camp Shalom, a beautiful historic site up in the Santa Monica Mountains, I took advantage of the last few weeks of program season and joined a group of NatureBridge students for a hike. The 5th graders I spent the morning with were from Extera, a public school in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Extera received nearly $5,000 in scholarship funds in order to make their NatureBridge trip possible.
I joined for the Challenge Hike. The nerves were palpable, and it took longer than usual to get started with lots of dragging feet in anticipation of the 5-mile hike to the Nicholas Flats Pond. Recognizing and honoring these anxieties, our NatureBridge educator, Elizabeth, took extra time with us, generating excitement to overcome the challenge and work together as a team.
The group was mostly male and all Latinx, but one of the few girls in the group requested a job. “You can be the MOOP Master,” Elizabeth responded. We then got into a conversation about MOOP – Matter Out of Place – and ways to recognize it and what to do about it. “Can someone give me an example of MOOP?” asked Elizabeth. “Trash!” said one student. “Apple cores!” said another.
A third small voice added, “Me.”
There was a long pause before Elizabeth asked the student, “ Why do you say that?”
He responded, “Because I’m out of place. I’m out of place here.”
Elizabeth tried to clarify. “Do you think you’re out of place in the woods?”
“Yes, I am out of place everywhere here. I don’t belong here. I belong in Mexico.”
Elizabeth paused again, and the 5th graders were unusually quiet. She said, “It makes me feel so sad that you feel that way. You belong here. We all belong here.”
And just like that, we went on our way. The hike began, the chatter and goofing around resumed. There were shrieks of excitement and groans of complaint. All the while, I was taking in what had just happened. I’ve never felt out of place in the woods. It’s where I go to come home. What if I never had that? Furthermore, what if I never felt at home anywhere, or what if I felt like home was a faraway place that I couldn’t get to?
About a half mile in, we stopped to play a game. It was an exercise to illustrate interconnectedness – between each other, between different species, between living and nonliving, and between things that “belong” here and things that don’t. I don’t know if Elizabeth had planned to do this, but it was a stroke of genius either way. I watched the boy who considered himself MOOP pick a flower, and talk about how the flower needed the water from the stream we’d just crossed. I’ll never know if he consciously recognized himself as part of the web we created, but I know for a moment, he realized he was right where he was supposed to be.