A Meaningful Life

Alzar School | 28.04.21

Students are back on campus from their two weeks of expedition, with sun-kissed cheeks, longer frocks, and big smiles. While they were away from the classroom, learning by no means stopped. Each day, students engaged in a 1-hour academic expedition lesson, which are place-based lessons aligned with core standards and a given subject: science, math, history, English, Spanish, and leadership. Students who traveled the Lower Salmon in the first week explored a central question in their English lesson: “What is a meaningful life?”

Sandy beaches and mega-mids on the S21 Lower Salmon expedition.

Prior to diving into the lesson, Charlie gave his peers a quick (yet thorough) summary of the human history of central Idaho (also see last week’s blog). He spoke of the Nez Perce or Nimiipuu tribes that inhabited the area up to 13,000 years ago, Lewis and Clark passing through in 1805, fur trading in the 1840’s, mining in the 1860’s, and homesteaders settling during the 1930’s and Great Depression. This brought us to the lesson’s focal point: Sylvan Ambrose Hart, or Buckskin Bill, who settled along the Salmon River in 1929 and stayed through his death in 1980. Buckskin was resourceful, self-reliant, and ingenious, building his own tools and guns, making his own clothing, and harvesting his own wild game and vegetable garden year after year, only miles upstream from our current voyage.

Buckskin Bill panning for gold on the Salmon River

For the first portion of the lesson, students chose to independently read about Buckskin through either a 1966 Sports Illustrated article (see the original layout here) or a chapter from Idaho Loners, a book by Idaho historian Cort Conley. While reading, students were encouraged to reflect upon what defined a meaningful life for Buckskin Bill, and what their own definition would be. Students were also invited to craft one guiding question to bring to the discussion that would follow.

Next, students gathered in a circle for a Harkness discussion, and offered these guiding questions:

  • Charlie – What was a meaningful life for Buckskin?
  • Maeve – What would be your hardest part of that life?
  • Ka’Sha – What skills do you have that would help you survive? What challenges would you deal with?
  • Sophie – Do you think he lived a more meaningful life, being out there? Or did he miss out?
  • Laura – What from this experience (an Alzar School semester) do you want to take home, to make it a more meaningful life?

Students had insightful reflections for each question and shared a few things they hoped to take home with them after Alzar School. Yet, even more enlightening than our group discussion were the many daily moments that students authentically demonstrated how they live meaningful lives. While Will and Lulu met the challenge of rolling their kayak 15 times successively, Perry celebrated his first roll, and Alexander adjusted his expectations with humor and humility, as he tried to accomplish three rolls (after one… then two…). Liam, Ka’Sha, and Alex J. gently watched over a large moth as it recovered from traveling through a splashy rapid. Each day, McCallum fully immersed herself into an ongoing mystery game and pulled in her peers and instructors creatively. At the confluence of the Salmon and Snake rivers, Marri inspired his peers to swim the converging currents: “…leave with fresh flesh, full of positivity!” While our journey was a far cry from Buckskin’s independent and solitary lifestyle, the students’ connection and appreciation of nature and one another was just as intense.

Alexander, Annabel, and Kate soak up every moment of spare time with spikeball
Chris teaches the basics of rolling
Lulu, Daniela, Laura and Liam test their linguistic prowess

Beyond these individual examples of living life meaningfully, as a larger group of 20 students, this group collectively leaned into each experience. When Day 3 lingered later into the afternoon, Leaders of the Day (LODs) Charlie, Marri, and Lulu offered the group a choice – to stay at the beach we’d arrived to, or to push on. Unanimously, the students shouted – “keep going!” This occurred two more times, as the group kept seeking more time on the water, more adventures, more moments in the fading sunlight. The same sentiment was clear the next day when LODs Maeve, Alexander, and Lexi led the group on a hike up the steep grassy mountain behind the Wapshilla Camp. After reaching the first grassy knoll, and pausing for a snack and group photos, the LODs offered the option to continue hiking. “Yes!!!” was the collective response. At the next saddle, they again offered the option to keep going, and again received a loud and clear “Let’s do it!” And so, we kept hiking, step after step, navigating our way through a meaningful life.

For Perry, a meaningful life includes seeking new challenges, such as the ability to re-right an overturned raft (it is much harder than it looks!)