I’ve always believed that no time spent in the outdoors is wasted, as each moment, dull or scary, teaches us something important and vital.
This thought was my mantra the day I agreed to go climbing with a bunch of ‘problem’ kids, bussed out of some grim Northern city for the day, no doubt to give their teachers, carers and social workers a day off, Now I know the term ‘problem’ kids are probably un-PC but that’s what they were, luckily someone had taken them on and agreed to introduce them to climbing, You could tell they were ‘bad lads’ because they couldn’t stand still in Stanage car park for more than a second, or stop themselves from muscling each other around, all dressed for the FA Cup, soccer strips and white legs in the winter chill. Looking at their miserable faces it looked like they hadn’t had a choice when it came to the day’s outing - and it didn’t look like their mood would improve either, as it appeared that packed lunches had already been scoffed, It was still only 1 pm.
I expect they were there because when their teachers said: “Sit down and be quiet” they didn’t and wouldn’t. You could just tell they would be hard to control. These were the sort of kids who were already stigmatized, they knew they were ‘bad’ and ‘trouble’ and were ‘. no doubt heading for worse still. You’d imagine - as I did - that this was a recipe for a bad day out on the rock: crazy kids and climbing don’t mix and I began to feel sorry for any other climbers we’d meet.
Walking up the hill I talked to some of the kids, asking them where they lived and what they did in their free time, Like most kids, their guards were up, both because I was an adult and because it was in front of their friends. I’d seen it before, doing lectures to kids in senior schools.
The kids would slump in front of me, chewing gum and using up their text allowance as I spoke, It was only when you bumped into the same kids outside, away from prying eyes that they would tell you how ‘wicked’ your stories were, ask loads of questions that proved they were listening and sometimes even ask for an autograph. These kids were just the same and you knew that to get an honest response you’d have to catch them off, guard.
Once at the crag I watched the same bravado and macho posturing that you get at any sport, as well as the fear and anxiety of the first time climber. Eventually, they tied on and started climbing, all knees, elbows and badly-adjusted helmets. For some, when they touched the rock it just seemed to click. Up they went like butcher’s dogs, scratched arms and bruised legs poking out from their strips, You could see these kids were good at this, maybe too good even to realize just how hard it was.
Watching them I thought about the theory that intelligence no longer needs to be defined by your ability to crack mathematical formulae, recite Shakespeare or ride your bike and wave at the same time, there are apparently seven bits of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematic, musical, bodily-kinaesthetic, spatial, interpersonal and interpersonal. You could see straight away that some of these kids had extraordinary bodily-kinaesthetic lQs and very soon the V Diffs the teachers had set ropes on were far too easy and, impatient for a top rope, they were soon soloing off left, right and centre. “I won’t fall sir, it’s easy,” they shouted down as I tried to spot three kids at once as they smeared and lunged away in their trainers,
I wondered as I stood there hoping they were that good if anyone had ever told them they were as clever as Stephen Hawking - but. only in a way that schools weren’t designed for. I wondered if anyone had ever told them they were good at anything.
After a brief shouting match between the teacher and the kids, with them telling him to “fuck off” and that “he was too chicken to climb up and get them” they finally came down,
The teacher was cross, both because he’d lost control and also perhaps because they were actually much better than him, They were on different planets really, the only problem being he was still their teacher. With nothing but threats, he swore that the worst offenders wouldn’t come again, even though they were also the best climbers.
Packing up, ready to head back to the van and back to the city, a couple of the kids crowded around me, probably to show the teacher they didn’t care if they couldn’t go climbing again.
In loud and agreeing voices they said how ‘wicked’ climbing was ‘and asked questions like what was the biggest rock I’ve climbed and if I thought there were any rocks near their school.
All of a sudden they were all smiles, eyes alert and faces flushed, I felt a stab of sadness and wanted to save them all.
I suppose we were all just caught off guard.