Week Without Walls 2019

School is not a Building

It’s 8:00 AM on a Monday morning as 17 bleary-eyed students gather around the breakfast table. They’re getting a late start because the day before they trekked over the tortuous karst mountains of Quang Binh province and swum more than a kilometer through the eerie darkness of Ken, Tu Lan, and Tom Caves. The day before that they hiked almost ten kilometers in the blistering late-April heat of central Vietnam. Exhaustion is cumulative, and anticipatory, but though energy runs low, spirits run high. Today they are going to swim through Tom Cave and squeeze through the narrow passages of Secret Cave before hiking the last five scorching kilometers back to civilization.

Before the meal starts the aging teacher bellows, “Where are Su Bin and Dilan right now?” A chorus of young voices chirps, “In school.” “Where are you right now?” continues the teacher. This is an open-ended question with many possible answers, but after a short pause, Bettyna, who is older and wiser than the rest pipes up, “In school!” “That’s right,” enthuses the teacher, “You’re in school, which is why we call this the ‘Week Without Walls.’ You’re learning, you’re just not doing it in a building.” “What are we learning?” the teacher hears the children think. He voices the question and then answers it. “You’re learning that ‘I can’t keep going!’ means, ‘I don’t want to keep going,’ but that you really can because you don’t have a choice. You’re learning that you can jump off a four-meter cliff into the swirling froth beneath a waterfall even though the thought of it makes you want to wet yourself. You’re learning that a campfire cannot be started from the top – it must be lit from beneath. You’re learning that huge, hairy spiders are more afraid of you than you are of them because their lives depend on their fear whereas your fear is just a form of ignorance. You’re learning the sense of elation that arises from doing things that you had no idea you could do.”

Although organizing a Week Without Walls entails a huge amount of preparation, I keep to four simple premises when planning a trip: 1) keep the costs down to make the trip affordable, 2) only go to places that I know through my own or the experience of a trusted friend, 3) organize activities that the students are unlikely to do while vacationing with their families (WWW is not a holiday!), and 4) engage the children in experiences that test their physical and emotional limits. On every trip there are times when some children regret their decision to participate. Occasionally there are tears. Nevertheless, in my experience, the child who says, “I so wish I hadn’t come on this trip,” at the beginning, is the one who is most likely to say, “That was the best time of my life!” at the end.

David Stanton