On Sunday morning, March 18th, 2012, at 6:30 AM, a group of twenty-four of us from One Spark Academy (including two students from local middle schools, five parent chaperones and my lovely niece Rachel) embarked on an adventure to Yosemite National Park that would surpass even our lofty expectations. The following Friday night, at the time we promised parents we’d return, six cars pulled back into the Teen Center parking lot carrying our precious cargo: weary but invigorated kids, who were bonded to us and each other after our journey. While any attempt to explain the scope of the week and its amazing magical moments would likely fall flat, I can share some details in the context of life lessons that Yosemite reinforced:

Lesson 1: Expect the unexpected. I am a planner, down to minute points at times. While my planning helped ensure that all paperwork, supplies, and schedules were in place, the group was also expected to drive into Yosemite Valley via the Wawona Tunnel and see the iconic view (in the picture above). But that wasn’t to be, because soon after 2,000 feet elevation, we were driving in a snowstorm. When we stopped to put on chains, the kids joyfully threw snowballs and stuck their tongues out to capture snowflakes. Once we were back on the road, the girls in the back of the car I was driving had their noses and cheeks flat against the windows, looking out in amazement. One of them declared, “If we had to turn back now, I’d be satisfied.”

Had we known how much snow we’d be driving into, we might have turned around, or worried parents might have made a quick decision to cancel their child’s trip. Which leads me to the next life lesson…

Lesson 2: Embrace your fears. I know a few kids (and even adults) who were nervous about the unknown, the hints that we’d be doing some major hiking, perhaps sleeping in cold tent-cabins, having to walk to the bathrooms at night (what about the bears?!), or even the idea of cross-country skiing. But luckily our group learned that few (if any) of their fears were realized. Both trail groups (under the incredible guidance of their NatureBridge educators, Jack and Ruth) made it up to OMG viewpoint on the Yosemite Falls trail, and back down, after hiking nearly 6 hours. Impressively, that hike was the day after learning to cross-country ski, where we learned how to ski up and down hills, over freshly-packed snow, under blue skies, and with breathtaking vistas. Additionally, the tent-cabins warmed up quickly enough with the heater, the bathrooms were also warm, and it was surprisingly easy to get up early in the cold morning with the excitement of the day. Even a few raccoon sightings in our corner of Boystown were exciting, not fear-inducing. Yes, a few kids were worn out after a few days and had achy feet, even blisters. But, avoiding those pitfalls (such as knowing when to change into dry socks) comes with experience, which you can’t get if you don’t try to embrace your fears.

Lesson 3: Know you can be stronger, more powerful, and more influential than you might think. One of our morning quotes was by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Last year, at my old school, I had planned to take my students to Yosemite in Spring 2012. Well, even though I was no longer at that school, the plan I had shared with the kids– to take them on this adventure– weighed on me. And when we started planning the trip, the promise I made the families–to keep their children safe– weighed on me. But I knew we would be strong together (see lesson 2). And when we stood in a circle on the last night of our trip, and one of our chaperones noted how much love, humanity, and respect all of us had given each other, I knew our little group had the power to change the world… one helping hand, a kind gesture, and positive outlook at a time. An example of their collective power had been realized on the day of the “challenge” hike. I had doubted for a while that our adventurers would make it up to their destination: OMG viewpoint, which was along a treacherous, slippery path on Upper Yosemite Falls trail. But they proved me wrong. While both groups were determined to make it, every member had to do his or her part to be safe on the strenuous hike up. Through teamwork and encouragement, every hiker and chaperone was successful in reaching the viewpoint that day.

Lesson 4: Live in the present moment. Yet another quote we heard before our last full trail day was from Buddha: “Do not dwell on the past; do not dream of the future. Concentrate the mind on the present moment.” We all know how important this is. So why do we so easily get pulled into our endless list of obligations? Turns out that many of those obligations are pretty trivial when a group of students is in your care, or when El Capitan is facing you in her million-year old glory. Or when ascending and descending a rocky trail with steep cliffs, wet rocks, and overflowing waterfalls, and where deep snow required vigilance in every step. Or when asked to walk by oneself across a meadow, during a “Spirit Walk”, through the middle of the valley, with Half Dome looming to the right and Yosemite Falls cascading to the left. Or when walking on a trail at night, with the only light available from the stars or a neighbor’s flashlight, and you need a friend to be near you. With so much to be aware of, sometimes you’re going to slip, so you had better think about Lesson 5.

Lesson 5: “Rock Your Fall!” This was the motto of the day with one group while cross-country skiing. They were told they were going to fall a lot, and they did. We are going to fall in life. If we don’t plan to fall (or fail), we might as well not plan to do anything new. And, since we’re going to fall sometimes, we can at least embrace the opportunity to pick ourselves back up and learn something.

Lesson 6: Being with people who care about you always trumps doing an activity with those you can’t trust. Life is hard, filled with twists and turns and, in the life of a teen, more insecurities than can be counted. For too many of us, education has become a disconnected series of tasks, where there is too little trust, safety, and compassion. As a testament to our mission, there were many times throughout the week in Yosemite that parent chaperones and kids shared how much our group was a family; how much they felt included; how much they felt cared for, nurtured, safe and respected. Each and every student and adult mattered, and that is what makes One Spark Academy a special place, wherever we are together.

-Lori Peters

PS: Special thanks to the amazing people at NatureBridge Yosemite for their awesome program!