We took our 8th grade class on their senior trip to Niagara Falls a couple of weeks ago. We ditched Washington in the wake of 9/11 (nothing was open) and we never looked back. Our thinking is that seniors do not want to see museums - they just want to hang with each other. In theory, we could spend three days on the bus and they would be more or less OK with that.
At any rate, on the third day we did the actual Falls - first the Maid of the Mist boat ride, followed by the Cave of the Winds, where you walk right into the "bridal veil" falls and get beyond any previous notion of wetness that you ever imagined. I love these activities - I have done them every year for the past nine years and am already looking forward to doing them again.
What struck me was a sincere and unprompted comment from one of our students. We walked from the Maid to the Cave (about a 10 minute stroll around the corner), and while we were doing so, one young lady remarked to me that her family never takes trips like this. Now, mind you, her family has gone on plenty of vacations to plenty of "vacation hot spots." So I asked her what she meant, and by way of explanation she commented that when her family goes on vacation they spend a lot of time in the hotel, but do not generally do things as undoubtedly real as Niagara Falls.
To my mind, this comment was refreshing and thought-provoking. It was refreshing in that it was good to hear a student self-aware enough to realize that simply going to Florida or the Bahamas or even Israel is not really an experience if all that you do is go there without experiencing the place itself.
But more important, the comment was thought-provoking in that, more and more, it seems that the experiences that we provide for our children are more manufactured than authentic, more defined by accumulating lists of locations visited, restaurants eaten at, and official "chavayot" than by experiencing the wonders of nature or having a moment of quiet reflection and spiritual contemplation. As we drove the 6-7 hours to Niagara Falls, passing through some beautiful upstate New York countryside, most of our students had their eyes securely fastened on some form of a screen. When we went to a Toronto Blue Jays game on one night of our trip, some of our students undoubtedly marked off in their head that they had made it to one more stadium in their vague goal of going to all 30.
However, when we stood on the Maid of the Mist, coming as close to the powerful Canadian Falls as possible, watching the walls of water on either side of us and the massive mist rising in the middle, it was simply impossible to think anything other than "awesome". To my mind, no roller coaster in the world can offer what Niagara Falls can - an unbridled encounter with the enormity and undeniability of God's might and the amazing wonders of nature that He created.
And that was, I believe, what touched something inside the student mentioned above. She had been to plenty of nice places and stayed in plenty of nice hotels and eaten in plenty of wonderful restaurants. But at a certain point, one realizes that none of those things offer more than external, physical comfort. Something inside this student was longing to be impressed, to be touched, to be inspired. Niagara Falls did it for her. As educators, it is our job to open our students' eyes to the experiences that will do the same for them.