Recently my relationship with NOLS made a dramatic change. Since 1990 I have been an employee of the school as well as a graduate. On June 20, 2005 I joined an elite group. I became a NOLS parent.
As a NOLS grad and employee, I have long been convinced of the incredible educational value of a NOLS course. In my role as the NOLS admission and marketing director, I’ve had the good fortune to meet many of our grads and hear stories of how NOLS changed their lives, and how everyday they use skills they developed. Once you’ve heard the stories, how could you not want that for your own kids?
I broached the subject of a NOLS course with 17-year-old Clay, our oldest child. Clay has grown up around NOLS and has a good deal of outdoor experience for his age. He wasn’t that thrilled about the idea. I couldn’t get him to tell me why. So I had to send Peg, wife and mother, into the dark abyss that is a 17-year-old’s heart and mind.
Peg reported back. “He’s afraid he’ll disappoint you. He doesn’t want to fail. It costs too much.”
Clay is coming off a tough year. He got hammered in math and the rest of his grades are all over the board. My parental diagnosis? Clay is an under-achiever. A bright kid (according to the standardized test scores), but he doesn’t put in the work consistently. He lacks confidence and gives up too easily. Sometimes he won’t try because he’s afraid he’ll fail.
So after a few conversations, Clay took the initiative and filled out the application for his NOLS course. I tried to stay out of the process as much as possible. I wanted the experience to be Clay’s, and I knew if I took too much leadership his response would be negative. I was the courier, shuttling paper and checks from the house to the office.
As the course start got closer I tried to have a few conversations with Clay about it. He rarely reveals much of himself to me, so these conversations were pretty short.
Dad: Are you looking forward to your course?
Dad: What do you think it will be like?
Clay: I dunno. Probably like the 50 miler we did with [Boy] Scouts.
Dad: Are you apprehensive about anything?
Clay: Yeah, a bit.
Dad: What are you apprehensive about?
Clay: I dunno. Meeting new people, I guess.
Dad: Well, everyone will be meeting new people. You’ll all be in the same boat.
Blah. Blah. Blah. Clay really wasn’t going to let me in and I didn’t have much to add. Frustrating? For both of us.
And then before we knew it, June 19 was upon us. What do you say to your son when you drop him off for a 30-day backcountry expedition? Is it okay to hug him even though several of his new coursemates are milling around?
I decided “yes” to the hug, a quick one. And went with, “Listen to your instructors. Stay safe. Have fun. I love you.” Sniff. Clay headed off to meet folks he hoped would become his friends.
A bit more than a week has passed since Clay’s NOLS course began. We really miss that kid. When we get up in the morning, we look out the window and do a quick weather check, not that our weather in town is at all reflective of what might be happening high in the Wind River Range.
In the last week I keep hearing admission officers saying to families, “No news is good news.” Just like the other NOLS parents, I want to know how it’s going. Is Clay happy? Is he having fun? Is he learning? I totally buy into the idea that a NOLS course is a wilderness experience and the students need to experience it without connection to the outside world, but I can’t help wondering: What do you suppose Clay did today? Maybe they climbed or fished? Suppose it rained up in the mountains? Did it snow? Clay and his NOLS course have us guessing. The possibilities are endless.
At the end of the day, what do I want for Clay? Most of all I want Clay to be happy. I hope that Clay comes home from his NOLS course with a full toolbox. Confident. Filled with adventure. Never bored. Always learning. Happy with himself.
I can’t wait to see him. I could meet him when the bus pulls in down at NOLS Rocky Mountain. Or I could wait until he comes up to NOLS Headquarters for his alumni talk. In the evening, he and his coursemates will walk right by our house on the way to their end-of-course barbecue. Should we sit out on the front porch and wave? Or I could just wait until he calls and wants a ride home. Or…
Oh, well. I guess I’ll figure it out. I still have 20 days to think about it!
Proud parent Bruce Palmer, NOLS admission and marketing director, has worked at the school’s headquarters in Lander, Wyoming since 1990. His son Clay returned from his NOLS course successful (and happy).