People of Color: Field trip

When it comes to going on nature walks with my kid’s class and their parents, my wife goes, I stay home. She suffers less than I do.

Field Trip 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Field Trip 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Before I tell what it’s like to go on a nature walk with Israeli school parents, let me say that I love walking outdoors like I love few things in life. I try to walk every day around the parks of Modi’in for exercise, and my mind just wanders and it’s great; it’s an addiction. But walking in the country is the ultimate.I’ve gone with my family on walking tours of the English countryside, and they’re the most glorious, memorable vacations I’ve ever had. We went with groups of British vacationers – very, very nice people. Nothing deep, nothing intense, but very friendly, good people. And the walks were like that – long, meandering, with the least possible structure; no rush, no competition, no challenges – just open up your senses and enjoy.
So are we clear? Again, I love walking, especially in the country, and going with groups of people is just dandy with me. But going on a nature walk with my kid’s class and his classmates’ parents is something I stopped doing a few years ago after about the third or fourth time. On this matter, my wife and I have worked out a compromise – she goes, I stay home. She suffers less than I do. I really, really suffer. Being on these walks is like being in the army again, only this time you’re not allowed to complain; for the sake of class morale, you have to pretend you’re having a good time.
The problem is not the nature walk. The problem is what Israeli school parents do to the nature walk, to the whole experience: They turn it into a military exercise.
Once there was a walk through the forest with the kids and parents of the whole elementary school – and I’ve never seen so many guns sticking out of the waists of so many men wearing jeans. There was even a woman carrying a rifle. While the Education Ministry guidelines called for some small proportion of adults to be armed, they did not call for a suburban militia. We had cops and cop cars with us; I seem to recall a helicopter as well. A couple of hundred elementary school kids and parents go for a weekend walk in the forest, and it looked like we were on our way to invade Jordan.
Ordinarily, though, you just go with your kid’s class, with no more than about 30 people altogether. This way the experience is more intimate, more social, and the adult peer pressure and status competition is more intense.
First you drive to the appointed spot in town to line up in a convoy. A few of the habitually involved parents are walking up and down the row of vehicles, talking into cellphones. There are lots of 4x4s, lots of hitech company cars, lots of fathers with dark sunglasses pushed back on their buzz-cut heads. Soon we’re moving out. The cars in the lead are driving at least 140 kph. I lag behind; maybe they’ll lose me.
We get to the place in the foothills or the forest and somebody’s guiding you to a parking place. Then “the men” – meaning the five or six insiders, the leaders, the officer corps – work out the logistics. The word is passed down to the grunts, to the nobodies – you, you, you and you drive everybody to where we’re going to walk, then drive back here, park, and Gidi will take you back over there in his moving van, okay? WE SHUTTLE TO and from, then we’re sitting or hunching uncomfortably in the van, traveling up and down an extremely bumpy trail, and the reunion begins. What does this remind you of, Asher, hah? Remember in Golani? Hah hah hah hah hah hah. Remember? Hah hah hah hah hah hah...
Finally we arrive and the other drivers jump down from the van without a word to Gidi. I figure that maybe he feels he’s being taken for granted as our chauffeur, so I tell him, “Thanks for the lift, Gidi.” He looks at me like I’m crazy. Where do you think you are, England?
We’ve got this one dad who runs all the nature walks – very nice, smart, friendly, considerate guy, but everyone knows he is in charge. Once the kids picked up an iguana or something and were going to take it on the walk, and our platoon leader saw it, strode forward, took the big lizard out of the kid’s hands, announced, “It is forbidden to take animals out of their habitat – I am returning it to its natural environment,” deposited the thing far away and returned to his post. No pets on this maneuver. Son of a gun has command presence.
I should mention that the foothills and forests surrounding Modi’in, with all due respect, are not the English countryside for beauty, at least not to my taste, so this may affect my attitude. Except for the rainy seasons, which keep getting shorter, the greenery in the area looks pretty gray, pretty dry and dusty. And with regard to the regimentation that seems to overtake these class walks, I’ve gone on walks run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and it was completely different, completely free. I think the reason is that on SPNI walks, people generally don’t know each other, they’re not going to see each other again, so they don’t have to worry so much what the others think. In Israeli schools, a class pretty much stays together for 12 years, which means the classmates’ parents stay together for 12 years, and as the schools here are neighborhood schools, this means the classmates’ parents will be seeing each other all the time.
Which means that on these nature walks, you don’t want to get a reputation as a slacker, or a complainer, or a weakling. So let’s hear it – does everybody want to keep on walking farther and steeper? Yes, commander!
One time we’d been walking for about two and a half hours, we were on our way back, and I see the officer corps huddling, and soon our leader is saying that if we want, we can take this other route that’s a little longer, a little narrower and a little steeper, but much more scenic than the planned route, it’ll take us past a stunning gorge and breathtaking valley – but only if we want to.
For most of the scenic route I was so busy looking at the ground so I wouldn’t slip on the rocks that I missed the scenery. At one point it got so steep that a lot of us had to slide down on our asses. I should also mention that while I love walking, I hate hiking.
Near the end, the commander stops and announces, “In another three minutes we’ll be meeting in the shade over there for sikum.” This is the Hebrew word for “summation.” It’s what they have at the end of every army exercise – actually at the end of every Israeli group project, every Israeli goal-oriented endeavor. Summation. Sikum. The leader gathers everyone together to discuss what went wrong, what went right and how to do better the next time. Onward and upward.
Why do you need a sikum at the end of a freaking nature walk? I’m afraid I went AWOL for it.
And I’ve gone AWOL for these class outings ever since. I don’t dislike the other parents as individuals, not at all; in fact, I’ve always felt completely at ease, even lucky, that my kids are growing up with theirs. They’re great neighbors, too. It’s just that I find these folks hard to take as a group, with backpacks on, following each other around in the wilderness. I guess I should mention that I didn’t like the army much.
When it comes to the nature part of the nature walk, though, my view is simple. Even if Jerusalem could only have been built where it is, I wish that Modi’in, one of its bedroom communities, could somehow have been built in England’s green and pleasant land.