Educators and counselors talk about “teachable moments.” If we’re “living right,” as my grandfather used to say, we encounter these moments every day and often. Sometimes our best teachable moments are also ranked as our most embarrassing.
When I am an old man telling and re-telling the stories of my youth and its glory days, I will very likely focus on the decade I spent working as a wilderness guide and counselor. The best of those years was spent at Wolfcreek Wilderness School, which was located just below Vogel State Park in Union County, Georgia.
I’ve never been comfortable speaking in front of groups, but one of the core components of the programs we facilitated was challenging people to step out of their comfort zones. Therefore, when it was my turn to lead a ceremony closing out a program for a group of 8th graders, I had little choice but to roll up my sleeves and get to work.
The closing ceremony I chose was a variation of the well known ritual of passing on the torch. The participants stand in a circle, each one holding an unlit candle. Beginning with a single flame, they light the candle of the person next to them as the flame travels around the circle. The ceremony symbolizes the passing on of knowledge or tradition and it is usually done in silence or in a solemn and respectful manner.
As the ceremony was about to begin and we stood quietly in our circle, we could hear the sound of dogs barking in the distance. We thought nothing of it at first. Barking dogs are not uncommon in the country. But the barking got closer, and closer, until a pack of dogs ran into a storage room directly under the floor where we stood.
For several weeks prior to our summer program, the property around our facility had been visited by some of the “wild” or feral hogs that often plague mountain communities in our area. Unbeknownst to our staff or participants, our director (from Atlanta) had hired a group of local hunters to deal with the hog problem – on the very weekend we were hosting a group of kids. As Curly from the movie, “City Slickers” might say, “City folk!”
The dogs we heard barking were hunting dogs. They were chasing a hog down the mountain, across the field and into the storage room under our Lodge. They cornered the hog directly under our common room and proceeded to do what dogs do with a wild hog. Soon the sounds of growling were added to the barks, as well as the piercing squeals of a hog in distress.
I don’t now if you’ve ever heard a squealing pig, but if you were close enough I believe it could actually do damage to your eardrums. As it turns out, there were a few kids in our group who were capable of screaming almost as loud. In an instant, the silence of our ceremony was replaced with barking, growling, squealing, screaming, crying and the angry shouts of hunters. It was all we could do to prevent an infectious panic from stampeding our terrified group of children.
Joy passes quickly, but horror seems to stretch out forever. Eventually the hunters captured the hog (still very much alive), secured the dogs and to everyone’s relief, left the property. One of the teachers responsible for our group of students took me aside and asked if we could go ahead and complete the ceremony. She thought the solemnity might be just the distraction needed to calm our group of frightened kids. So we reformed our circle and passed out candles to begin the passing on of the flame.
Unfortunately for the solemn tone of our ceremony, the only candles we had available were tea candles. You know the type – small disks of paraffin thinly clad in aluminum. They work fine sitting quietly on a hard and heat resistant surface or floating in water. However, when you hold them in your hand for an extended period of time, they get hot. Very hot. So hot that it becomes impossible to continue holding them. And to add insult to injury, our collection of candles must have also been defective, because as they warmed up, they began to escape the confines of their aluminum enclosures and drop to the floor.
You can imagine the scene: The quiet dignity of our ceremony was punctuated by cries of “ouch” and the sound of burning candles being dropped on the floor. The heat of the candles was almost as hot as the temperature of my cheeks.
So a flame was indeed passed around the circle, but it was not the one we anticipated. Instead it was the sound of infectious laughter born out of relief. After the laughter subsided, the flames extinguished and smoke cleared, I did have the presence of mind to remark that there was no rule which required that the quest for knowledge be undertaken without humor.
“We all learned something today,” said one of the teachers, “though I’m not quite sure just now what that is. But one thing is certain. We will never forget this night.”
Nor will I.