THE WILD BUNCH: It was 10 o'clock at night and a bunch of fourth and fifth graders were still in school.
Well, sort of. It's true that they were working on a literature lesson. Each of the fourth graders had memorized a folk tale and made a papier maché mask of a character in the story. One by one they'd been getting up to recite their tales and show off their painted creations. The eager ones waved their hands to get their teacher's attention, impatient to act out the drama of the day it snowed tortillas or to tell what was in fox's sack. Others, including the child who's inherited every single one of my shyness genes, shuddered when their names were called.
But these young storytellers were not in their regular classroom. They were sitting around a blazing campfire on the desert slopes of the Tucson Mountains. Behind their backs, the moon was lighting up the mountain peaks and silhouetting an army of healthy saguaros. If the kids looked through their toes, past the fire's flames, they could see the lights of the city twinkling below. And just as one girl enthusiastically launched into her Chinese tale of the white-boned demon, a pack of coyotes began to howl.
The students, some 50 strong, shrieked with delight.
The eerie sound of the coyotes in the darkness was one of the big reasons they were here, on an overnight at Tucson Unified School District's Cooper Environmental Education Campus, better known as Camp Cooper. They'd come, sleeping bags, flashlights, teddy bears and all, to learn about the desert by immersing themselves in it.
"It's a unique thing," said resource teacher Doris Evans, who directs the camp. "No other school district owns a thing like this."
The 10-acre desert camp is equipped with bare-bones sleeping cabins, a classroom, kitchen, ramada and school-size cooking grill. Some 6,000 TUSD elementary schoolchildren come out free of charge to the camp each school year, either for the day or overnight, the better to hear the coyotes for themselves and to tread lightly among the saguaros. Camp Cooper staff members take them on a morning hike and in the afternoon volunteers--read parents--teach the kids in hands-on centers everything there is to know about owl pellets and animal tracks. The bravest teachers sign on for the overnights, and use night-time campfire sessions to help the children gaze at the stars or, as in this case, practice their public speaking skills. Next morning, after breakfast, they roll back to school.
It's a surprising treasure, this camp, belonging to the much-criticized, financially strapped district that serves the majority of kids in the Old Pueblo. It came about almost by accident, Evans said. In the 1950s, an administrator by the name of Herbert Cooper bought up this lush piece of desert for a future school site. But the city grew in other directions and the land lay fallow. Eventually, some inventive teachers started using it for nature walks. By 1972, the district put up the cabins and hired a staff.
Nowadays, that staff is just Evans, who some years ago was the first curator of education at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and Audrey Toepper, an environmental education specialist who has the rank of teacher's aide.
"This is a pretty cheap operation," Evans said. "There's my salary and Audrey's. The only expenses are that we flush a few toilets and light a few lights. Twice a year we call the plumber."
Evans says that an extraordinary of children have never before had the pleasure of meandering along a desert trail.
"I feel strongly that education can take place outside the classroom in a much more meaningful way than inside the four walls," said Kendal St. John, the fourth-grade teacher on this particular outing. "By being out in the field the children have an opportunity to remember it and value it more."
Most of St. John's students had spent time in the desert before and they had definite ideas about it when they got out of their parents' cars at 10 a.m. (TUSD rarely has the money to send them in school buses.) The fourth-grade girls, for instance, knew that the most important job facing them for the next 24 hours was to keep scorpions from crawling up the bedposts in their cabin. Following their teacher's prior instructions, they dragged the metal bedsteads away from the wall and fiercely monitored each other to make sure that no one, but NO ONE, put any of their equipment on the floor.
But following their desert hike with Toepper, where they learned the names of the riotously blooming desert wildflowers, they came face to face with living bugs. St. John had enlisted a genial Carl Olson, of the UA entomology department, to teach her pupils about bugs. So persuasive was he--"These guys are gentle. That's what I want you guys to know"--that the fourth-grade scorpion haters even allowed the bugs to walk across their hands.
The same bunch also petted some snakes brought in by Roger Repp and learned how to keep themselves alive in the wilderness from a three-person Desert Survival Team from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. They played an environmental game called Oh Deer! and feasted on hamburger grilled by a team of dads and salads shipped in by the moms. And before it was time to head for the cabins, and get down to the serious fun of whispering about boys ("SHH! My mom's here!") they luxuriated by the campfire.
Maybe it was the moon beaming down or the coyotes howling or a day spent in the bracing outdoors. Whatever it was, somehow the shy child found the courage to get up by the dancing fire and tell her tale. She stood and faced 60 people, and in a clear strong voice told them how horned toad outwitted coyote. She even made them laugh.
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