July 21, 1997

Toughening the Will to Toughen the Mind


STONY POINT, N.Y. -- Almost every wilderness expedition run by Outward Bound, a group devoted to pushing people beyond their self-imposed limits, includes daily meetings in which campers are supposed to reach into their psychic recesses and state their deeply felt hopes, dreams and fears.

At one such meeting recently a grouchy Brooklyn high school student who was camping with 10 other students said: "My hope is to get home. My dream is to get home. My fear is that I won't get home."

Shortly thereafter, he and another student got their wish: They did head home, having dropped out of the grueling six-week program of hiking, canoeing and studying.

That left nine students in a pilot program created this year by New York City Outward Bound to improve the writing, reading and listening skills of talented but troubled ninth- and tenth-graders at the humanities and performing-arts campus of Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn.

The Outward Bound staff say they all have serious academic problems, the results of such hardships as shuttling through foster homes, coping with a parent with AIDS, and growing up in poverty so severe that some of their families could barely afford a $50 deposit to cover basic equipment for the program.

Certainly they were seasoned, if scarred, survivors of the urban wilderness. But now, three weeks into the program, they were beginning to hone their survival skills in the natural wilderness as well. The five girls and four boys had already endured a muscle-draining seven-mile canoe paddle, a raid on their camp by hungry bears, dizzying scrambles up cliffs, suppers of beans instead of burgers -- and they still had 15 days to go.

They stirred groggily in sleeping bags that lay scattered amid the oaks, boulders and blueberry bushes of a lakeside glen in Harriman State Park, about 50 miles northwest of New York City.

They were realizing why their teachers, parents and Outward Bound instructors were prodding and cajoling them to undergo what at first seemed like torture but eventually felt like triumph.

For Rhonda Dodson, 17, it was the mountains. She recalled her climb up the vertiginous shoulder of 4,714-foot-high Mount Colden in the Adirondacks early in the program: "At the top you looked down and could see over all the other mountains and everything else," Ms. Dodson said. " It was very quiet. It was beautiful."

For Bernard Derose, 16, whose father has remained in Haiti while the family has moved to various Northeast cities, it was the round of applause two weeks ago after he recited his own poetry in a coffeehouse in New Paltz, a village 100 miles from Brooklyn. "I am your shadow," he wrote. "I put fear in your heart and soul. I am everywhere." He had filled a worn composition book with poems, essays, and stories during the camping.

And then there were the more modest moments. As they were preparing to return to the heavy canoes for a seven-mile paddle down the Hudson River, Lavena Jones, a squeamish teen-ager who lives with her divorced father in Brooklyn, worked herself up to sticking her feet into clammy sneakers still wet from the day before.

Their program was modeled on a 13-year-old program for students from South Bronx High School run by an Outward Bound Center in North Carolina.

Richard Stopol, the executive director of New York City Outward Bound, said that 87 percent of the Bronx students who participated in the North Carolina program either had graduated from school or were still attending, compared with an overall graduation rate of less than 40 percent at the school. Half the participants have gone to college, he said. Reading levels rise more than half a grade, and math scores rise even more.

The Brooklyn teen-agers were recruited last spring from ninth- and tenth-graders who scored in the bottom third of their class in literacy tests. More than two dozen were invited to try a three-day hike in the Catskills in May, but only 12 took up the offer. Now nine remained.

The transition to wilderness from urban life was made slowly. Back in June, they practiced climbing on an artificial cliff built by Outward Bound at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, bought a book apiece to read during the program, and visited a journalist to learn about writing -- all as part of the curriculum.

But soon they were deep in the woods, cut off from friends and family and forced to form relationships with their instructors and, especially, each other (most students had been only passing acquaintances). They had to learn to work together to do what might have seemed simple -- like taking a 26-foot, 360-pound canoe from the top of a van.

"Tall people to the front," was the call that day as two of the canoes were lowered and carried to the Hudson River. Then the students had to paddle in synchrony to gather enough power to move the big white and red craft.

Almost all the participants are bright but, in the guarded parlance of Paola Vita, the Outward Bound education specialist who designed the program, have "social issues."

The students who hang on until August 2 will obtain credits in science, language arts and physical education, said Rosibel Nejia, 20, an intern instructor. The demands of cooking and eating bland meals, breaking camp, making camp, carrying canoes, filling journals and doing other chores gave the teen-agers little time to think about home, she said. But they did anyway.

"It's hard not to want to go back to the Brooklyn life -- the friends, the food, and the hanging out," Ms. Nejia said. But the fruits of the program were already becoming evident, she added.

Little acts of independence could build into something larger. Stanford Mentore, 14, a painfully shy boy, approached Ms. Nejia with a camera and a roll of film. "Can you load this for me?" he asked.

She did, but then said, "Now you want to try it?" He took the camera, took out the film, and replicated the process.

Success could be measured in increments. Ricardo Philibert, 15, a small, stocky boy, refused to do the morning jog, even when Ms. Nejia pleaded with him to race her. Finally, Kimesha Medley, 14, another student, ran over and said she would race Ms. Nejia. Ricardo, stung by the jab to his pride, began to sprint.

In the classic Outward Bound exercise, each student will spend a day, a night and the next day alone in the woods with a tent and the bare essentials, at least a mile from any other camper.

But they are not yet fixating on it, because there is still much to accomplish first. Back down at the Hudson River, they raised the heavy canoes in unison and hauled them down a grassy bank and over a ledge into the river.

In the baking afternoon sun, they dipped their paddles in the water and began to pull away from shore and head south.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company