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A Yosemite Education

Karis learns to ski Karis learns to ski. Photo by Jon Jay

At 17 months our daughter Karis was diagnosed with a condition that occupational therapists call Sensory Integration Dysfunction. My Jewish mother calls it spilkes (ants in the pants), my friends politely call it busy (usually while shaking their heads in dismay) and most doctors call it hogwash.

Be that as it may, when our daughter was a toddler, she would wash her body in ice cream just for the sensation. She banged her head against the wall without stopping for minutes at a time and shook her head back and forth so violently we thought we were living with Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." She had trouble navigating different surfaces without falling down and when it was time to talk, she could understand everything that was said to her but couldn’t form even a two-word sentence.

Thanks to an enlightened pediatrician, she began therapies to correct these problems when she was 18 months old and by kindergarten she seemed like any other kid...sort of. There was still the little problem of sitting still and paying attention but her personality is so sunny and ebullient, most teachers overlooked this—until second grade.

As I write this, I still have trouble believing that we upended our lives because of second grade problems. But we had done everything we could to even the playing field for her. After horrible experiences with her local public school, we put her in a private school where class sizes were small, kindness was the order of the day and the teachers were enthusiastic and involved. It worked great until she got a teacher who was absolutely fantastic—as long as her students remained seated.

This teacher did everything she could to get Karis to pay attention. But toward the end of the year, I was getting daily calls where she would put Karis on the phone and somehow, magically, I was supposed to get her to perform. Short of stapling her to the chair, I didn’t have any answers. I just had a permanent stomachache and the absolute knowledge that I could not go through another year like that one, and our daughter did not deserve to.

Then, while on a family trip to Yosemite National Park, I brought along Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods and read these words: “The back page of an October issue of San Francisco magazine displays a vivid photograph of a small boy, eyes wide with excitement and joy, leaping and running on a great expanse of California beach, storm clouds and towering waves behind him. A short article explains that the boy was hyperactive, he had been kicked out of his school, and his parents had not known what to do with him, but they had observed how nature engaged and soothed him. So for years they took the son to beaches, forests, dunes, and rivers to let nature do its work.” The photograph was taken in 1907. The boy was Ansel Adams.

Was this a sign? Maybe, because on the same day that I read about Ansel Adams, we got lost on a trail and ended up in front of a school. A school? In a national park? Yes. A public school. Free. No tuition. In heaven’s playground. You could even see Half Dome from the slide. I turned to my husband and said, “Let’s move here.” But it was not to be. The school in the Valley is reserved for kids whose parents live in the park, either because they work for the park service or the concessionaire. It is a public school, so if you are willing to make a treacherous ride over mountain passes in winter conditions, your child can also attend. Much as I love my daughter and want the best for her, one year in I still can’t face the roads in the park, especially in winter, making that school a definite no go.

Then someone mentioned Wawona to us. Sweet, wonderful Wawona. To most people there is absolutely nothing here; it feels like the back of beyond, which I suppose it is. But it boasts a wonderful library and a school. And it was the school that drew us like a magnet because, whether by luck or by chance, it also attracts teachers of unimaginable creativity and talent—people who are able to juggle the needs of kindergartners just learning their letters with sixth graders doing higher math.

More importantly for our daughter, learning takes place all around the classroom, which means she gets to move and that increases her ability to learn. Add in skiing one day a week in winter, outings with naturalists, lunches with rangers, cooking lessons to teach geography, a classroom of kids who think of each other as extended family and you have a prescription for success—not a single child left behind.

Karis cooks Learning geography through cooking. Photo by Jon Jay.

First opened at the end of the 1800s, Wawona Elementary is among the last one-room schoolhouses in America and almost certainly the last one located in a national park. So unique is the setting, so calm and learning-friendly the environment, so loving the atmosphere, I’ve come to think of it as a national treasure, one whose riches of location and innovation should be preserved and shared. That we landed here amazes me on a daily basis.

Last year, the very first field trip we took was to Sentinel Dome up on Glacier Point Road. As our motley crew of 5 and 6 and 7 year-olds wandered s-l-o-w-l-y through the forest, a teenager headed the other way stopped to ask who we were. “We’re from the one-room schoolhouse in the park,” came the answer. “There are schools in the park?” he asked. When I answered yes, his face seemed to crumble with sadness. “I should have gone to a school like that,” he mumbled. So should we all, I thought.

I don’t believe that now. Some kids learn best in a traditional setting. Some would expand and grow stronger using a city, with its museums and architecture, concerts and theater, as a hands-on classroom. Wawona Elementary has taught me the importance of matching the student to the setting. In our case, that happens to be nature. For our daughter, it’s the place where she thrives and learning takes root. Like Ansel Adams, she is learning to focus.


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