If you grow up attending east coast public schools and you manage to make it through the early years of elementary school, you are often rewarded with an educational overnight trip with all your classmates. On that trip, you learn about different types of plants and the exhausting reality of what it's like to be around your peers 24 hours a day for a long weekend. But those horrors are nothing compared to what some students went through on an overnight field trip where they were forced to pretend to be slaves as adults yelled racial obscenities at them in the name of education.
According to WFSB, Sandra and James Baker have filed complaints against their school district and with the Connecticut District of Education over an incident their daughter experienced when she was in 7th grade last year at Nature's Classroom in Charlton, MA. During the trip, the Baker's daughter and her classmates were was told to pretend to be on a slave ship, pick cotton and repeatedly verbally berated with the n-word by their "masters", counselors who worked at the camp. "The instructor told me if I were to run, they would whip me until I bled on the floor and then either cut my Achilles so I couldn't run again, or hang me," her father said she told him.
Fun fact: Nature's Classroom has been doing this kind of immersive educational learning for some time, and has gotten heat for it before. On their website, it's listed as follows:
Evening Activities...may be academic or social.
Large group academic activities may include an Environmental Hearing, a Science Exposition, or an Underground Railroad activity.
As was reported in 2008 by Teaching Tolerance magazine the last time this curriculum got attention, Nature's Classroom representatives said that the goal of the program is:
"to encourage students to think and act in ways that Africans trying to escape slavery thought and acted," and to "create a physically and emotionally safe, yet challenging experience." This included a pursuit to freedom, where students encountered a bounty hunter to "reinforce feelings of helplessness and frustration," and a freed slave who asked them, "Who among the group will be the next to return south to liberate others?"
At that time, the associate director for the Nature's Classroom's New England branch Stefan Sage said that, "Kids aren't given enough credit for what they can handle. I haven't heard a lot about kids saying that it's horrible. Schools see it as important and ask for it year after year. Very few ask to drop it. A lot of schools do follow-up activities with the Underground Railroad."
In order to go on the trip to Nature's Classroom, every student's family has to pay extra money, though if your family can't afford to pay the roughly $75-$150 cost, there is often scholarship money available. At least, that is according to my recollection of Nature's Classroom, which I actually attended back in the ye-old days of the late '90s, though which one, I can't say I remember (I think it was also in Massachusetts).
I too had to pretend to be on the Underground Railroad. I too was "chased through the woods." It was really, really scary and was also probably the first moment I really felt like I understood anything at all about what it must be like to be a slave. BUT (and this is a huge but), I am not black, I was not called the n-word, and I was not told to pick cotton. My classmates and I were simply rounded up at night and told to run through the woods, fearing for our lives. Even at the age of ten, I remember thinking, "This is really intense...and could go in a different direction really quickly...." Clearly, in this instance, it did.
Main image via Hulton Archive/Getty.