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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Nature’s Classroom subjects children to unnecessary trauma

Published: October 18, 2013
Section: Opinions

A local news story in my area has gained tread in the regional and national sector as two parents testified at a Hartford Board of Education Hearing in Connecticut’s capital city about a program that their daughter and her classmates attended. For 40 years, Nature’s Classroom, a residential environmental education program, has helped 750,000 children in 450 schools grow academically and as a community across New England and New York. One of the 500 programs that they offer is a reenactment of the Underground Railroad that involves middle school students taking on the role of slaves pretending to escape to the North as a way to teach children what the experience was truly like. The Underground Railroad Reenactment is one of the most popular programs that is offered and many students feel like they have gained a better understanding of what people went through during the regrettable time in American history.

Sandra and James Baker’s daughter went on the trip with the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy. The young girl, who is African-American, faced psychological and emotional trauma from the reenactment. She did not know if the staff was serious when the n-word was invoked. The parents were not informed about the reenactment beforehand and the students were only notified of the activity half an hour prior to when it took place. Before speaking to the Hartford Board of Education, the parents filed complaints with the Connecticut Department of Education’s Commission on Human Rights and the Office for Civil Rights.

I went to the same Nature’s Classroom in Charlton, MA for a couple of nights when I was in middle school and we participated in the reenactment. I do not remember much about the field trip, mostly that I got to miss a couple days of school, hang out with my friends and watch a miniature rocket be launched. I saw some of the reactions to the complaint from my former classmates. The general tone is that they thought it was ridiculous to accuse Nature’s Classroom of causing such trauma, that the parents are only after money. My old classmates felt the experiences the program imparted upon them were truly educational.

After reading the parents’ testimony and the reaction of the director of Nature’s Classroom, I have to disagree with my classmates. I did not experience any trauma from the trip, and as far as I know, none of my classmates did either. But after thinking about the situation from a different perspective I saw that it could be quite traumatizing.

Every ethnic, religious and cultural group has gone through hardships, but frankly, some are more atrocious and long-lasting than others. I attended Nature’s Classroom with my school which is about 95 percent non-Hispanic white, so for most of my classmates, the reenactment of slavery was not very personal. The complaint in the case claimed that the plaintiff and the other students of all races were called the n-word and had to act like a real slave. All of the staff who portrayed the slave masters were white. Some of the things that the “slave masters” said were, “You’re not a person. You’re property,” “Don’t look me in the eyes. You’re worthless,” and “God put you on this earth to serve us.” Though these statements are historically accurate with what was actually said, it seems insensitive and hurtful to speak to children in such a manner. A more appropriate experience would be if staff members acted as both slaves and slave masters and the children observed but did not participate.

As one of the only Jewish students in my middle school, I thought about what it would have been like if my middle school class had been part of a reenactment of a Nazi concentration camp. The mere idea of such an activity horrified me. I would have felt traumatized, ostracized and worthless if the adult leaders were speaking to me as Nazi gestapos spoke to concentration camp prisoners, as the “slave masters” were speaking to the “slaves” in the reenactment.

The reaction by the director of Nature’s Classroom was not sympathetic to the parents or child as it was very dismissive and nonchalant. He said that they do not condone the use of the n-word in the reenactment but mistakes happen. When dealing with impressionable children, such serious mistakes should not happen. He also seemed to say that the activity was only pretend, but the line between pretend and reality can be quickly blurred.

Nature’s Classroom does a follow-up session and many of the individual schools review with the students, but it seems hard to believe that the best way to teach children about slavery is to subject them to similar conditions and verbally abuse them. Though some children may have a better understanding of slavery after going through the reenactment, no one can truly understand something without experiencing it for themselves, and it may be better to not attempt to feel the pain that destroyed so many lives.