Farewell at the Friendship Circle

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Tamar Kupiec

It was the last community campfire of the year, when IslandWood instructors and children in the School Overnight Program (SOP) gather at the Friendship Circle to perform skits, sing songs, and celebrate the week of learning. The instructors’ skills were at their finest. They welcomed the students arriving from the lodges with “Funga Alafia,” a Nigerian folk song and SOP tradition, and their drumming and dancing could not have been more confident. The comic timing of their skits and banter rivaled that of an improv group. And they worked the crowd of children, chaperones, and teachers with finesse to create an atmosphere of acceptance and daring. It was the best campfire of the year, some said.

Every lyric and line was an expression of their camaraderie. As graduate students in the Education for Environment and Community (EEC) program, they had spent the last ten months teaching, studying, and living together at IslandWood. As SOP instructors, they put in days as long as 13 hours, leading their field groups in scientific investigations, team-building challenges, and explorations of the natural world. Their aim was to teach students not only to understand and stand up for the environment, but to do the same for one another—at home, school, and IslandWood. And what they asked of their students, they asked of themselves. In the field and in their coursework, they reflected on their shared teaching experience, challenged and sustained one another.

In many ways, their experience mirrors that of their students, who are expected to live and learn in community during the four days and three nights of SOP. That night the children performed with equal abandon and courage. And in the preceding days, sleeping away from home perhaps for the first time, they worked together to formulate scientific theories, navigate the unfamiliar trails, and ponder their role as environmental and community stewards.

On this final night of the 2017-18 school year, the children were having fun. They held up their end of the deal in every call and response, they did the “superglue clap” and “fireworks applause” as directed, and they stood bravely before their peers, whether to sing an anatomically correct rendition of “Dem Bones,” act out a skit, or perform feats of contortion. The grads were clearly having fun too, laughing at one another’s antics and cheering on the children who chose to perform. 

A parent chaperone had written a song in honor of IslandWood. He sang and played the guitar, accompanied by students who softly rapped the chorus, “Solo walk. Harbor trail. Coyote howl. Banana slug…IslandWood.” Earlier laughter gave way to quiet appreciation. A few instructors were seen wiping away tears. To bring the evening to a close, they played “Funga Alafia” once more, this time as they bid each lodge group good-bye, using the now familiar hand signals, the flapping of wings for Birds Nest Lodge, fishtail arms for Ichthyology Inn.

As SOP does, so does EEC. The students of Green Lake and Suquamish elementary schools would return home the following morning. The IslandWood students would graduate that weekend. With the children off to sleep and the Friendship Circle nearly empty, they remained behind to drum and sing a little longer. Then they loaded the drums and themselves into an electric cart, seemingly too small for the job, and took off laughing.