Who Killed Tom Sawyer?

Where the Red Fern GrowsThis book was read aloud to me in the fifth grade and I have never forgotten a single word of this beautiful story. I have tried, over the years, to encourage my children to read the book, but they have all balked at its “slow pace” and rural story line. Finally, just this summer my daughter read the book, and fell in love with the ramblings and adventures of Billy Colman and his hound dogs.

Living in Rural Oklahoma, Billy earns the money to purchase two hound dogs, trains them to hunt and sets off, alone, on hunting raccoons and in the process, escapes a number of moments of peril. Barefooted, he walks everywhere he goes, wandering with his hound dogs all over the county and the woods surrounding them – no phone updates, no “where are you Billy” text messages and no GPS tracking device in his cell phone.

The world Billy lives in in so very different from ours. While we have advanced technologically – and I appreciate so many of these luxuries – I cannot help but feel remorse for the elements of independence, self-reliance, maturity, adventure and confidence that Billy developed and demonstrated throughout the story. One of the foundational elements of modern schooling is the “creation” or “development” of self-esteem, confidence and character in our students ( See my post – One Size Does Not Fit All  for more details). The real question is, can this be done in the hermetically sealed, over-scheduled, highly monitored and short-leashed world in which we are raising our children. Can any of these things be “taught?” Or, do they emerge, individually, as a result of real-world tests, experience, victory and failure. What is lost in a “nerfed world,”  where everything is organized, quantified, tabulated, sanitized, safe guarded, error-proofed and mommy verified?

This is going to turn into one of those “when I was a kid” stories. You knew that was coming, right? But really, go back thirty years and little league consisted of two nights a week of play – to which we road alone on our bikes. Some parents came, some didn’t – it really wasn’t for the parents – it was our game. We spent the rest of our time playing pick-up games, swimming, fishing, ditch in the dark and any number of other things – outside. We explored the city dump, looking for “cool” stuff, we threw rocks at the abandoned factory, trying to find whatever glass was left to break, we walked the river when it was iced over (and laughed at the poor sucker who fell in), we played in the creek and generally used our imaginations and a quest for adventure to test and stretch ourselves.

I think of the opening scenes of To Kill A Mockingbird (a must read BTW!), in which the kids are outside trying to decide on a hot summer morning what they will do that day; that was our everyday. No agenda created by mom. No endless schedule of pre-planned activities, camps, lessons and entertainments. We didn’t look to our parents for the solution; we looked within ourselves for the answer. Which leads me to wonder – what the heck are we doing to our children and ourselves in this modern day, video game, air-conditioned and sterilized world? How does this effect their development?

To get a sense of what we are doing it would be helpful to read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv – in which he coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the absence of real, authentic contact with nature being experienced by today’s youth. Beyond the “tree-museums” that we call forest preserves, he is talking about unstructured contact, in which safety is not guaranteed upon admission, and the impact it has on health and development.

One of the threats facing us as a culture is obesity. We eat too much (most of which is not actually food) and move too little. While everyone, and their brother, wants to sell us a pill, diet plan, exercise machine or genetic defect to explain our pudginess – the bottom line is that we sit inside, engage in technology, pay others to do our “work” and eat crap food all day. The irony is, as writer Timothy Egan noted, the solution is readily available to everyone and it is free:

There is an obvious solution — just outside the window. For most of human history, people chased things or were chased themselves. They turned dirt over and planted seeds and saplings. They took in Vitamin D from the sun, and learned to tell a crow from a raven (ravens are larger; crows have a more nasal call; so say the birders). And then, in less than a generation’s time, millions of people completely decoupled themselves from nature.

We used to walk or bike where we needed to go, we cut our own grass and cleaned our own homes. The structure of the suburbs has eliminated, for many, the possibility of traveling in any way other that by car. It is an incredibly pedestrian unfriendly place. We have grown accustomed to remaining indoors – safe, climate-controlled and worry-free. But the fact of the matter is, as Mr. Louv noted:

‘Kids who do play outside are less likely to get sick, to be stressed or become aggressive, and are more adaptable to life’s unpredictable turns.

“The average young American now spends practically every minute — except for the time in school – using a smartphone, computer, television or electronic device,” my colleague Tamar Lewin reported in 2010, from a Kaiser Family Foundation study.

So, in thinking about Where the Red Fern Grows, I have become more cognizant of my need to go outside – just to sit, read, play, think and work.  I send my kids out more, damn the yard anyway – sometimes I look out the kitchen window and see all the crap spread over the yard – ladder against the tree, water balloon corpses everywhere, balls of all sizes, pots, pans, kitchen spoons, bikes – you name it – and I thank God that my children are outside, having fun, with each other. The day will come and they will be gone, then I can worry about my yard, right now it belongs to them.

Be Strong. Stay Hungry. Walk Tall.

 

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