They were afraid to drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, but the vertigo and the panoramic view were what their teacher wanted them to experience.
They were afraid of the woods after dark, but their teacher wanted them to know what it was like to hike, without streetlights, without flashlights, using only their night vision and hearing.
Late teacher Hilda E. Taylor's students gather after dinner for a moonlight hike through the forests of Maryland's Eastern Shore.
(Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)
They were afraid of baby striped bass, and traps for hairy crabs near the pier, and the weird, symphonic sound of crickets, but all of that -- the new, the strange and the different -- was exactly what Hilda E. Taylor wanted them to confront.
But Taylor, 62, was not there to reassure them. She and one of her sixth-graders, Bernard Brown, were heading to California on Sept. 11 to hike and kayak and study oceanic life when their hijacked airliner crashed into the Pentagon. Taylor, of Forestville, was doing for 11-year-old Bernard what she tried to do for all of her students: give them the world.
So at 11:15 a.m. Monday, in a grove of naked trees, next to a goat named Doby and a black sheep named Wilbur, 39 sixth-grade students from M.V. Leckie Elementary School in Southwest Washington tumbled off two chartered buses and into the woods of Maryland's Eastern Shore. They had their doubts about three days of nature.
"It smells like cow manure and looks like 'Blair Witch 2,' " pronounced Kaleema Wages. The others were quieter but just as uncertain.
It was just what Taylor would have expected. She dreamed big for these kids, many of whom live poor and isolated lives. For the past seven years, she'd scrounged up the $8,000 it cost to take Leckie's sixth-graders to Echo Hill Outdoor School, near Chestertown.
"It is amazing," she wrote the first year her class made the trip, "to see the expression on the faces of the students as they continue to discuss their adventures."
But this year, after she died, there was no money for the Thanksgiving week ritual. People at Leckie weren't sure how to obtain the grants. "And I wasn't sure I wanted to do it without her," said Leckie's other sixth-grade teacher, Sheryl Robinson. The educators at Echo Hill knew Taylor and knew what she would want for her kids. They raised the money themselves so the students could come to the camp and realize Taylor's legacy. Her spirit was everywhere for the past three days.
The teacher was there when a small group boarded an old oyster boat in a secluded cove. Canada geese honked nearby, and one of the city boys looked over and wondered, "Do beavers live over there?"
She was there when the boat anchored in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay -- which was the color of new denim, while the sky was the soft blue of old Levis -- and the Echo Hill instructor scooped some water in a beaker and put it under a microscope and asked, "You see anything moving? Anything that's moving are baby bay animals."
And Markeida Jones squinted, paused, then shrieked excitedly, "I see it!"
She was there when the kids walked through a bamboo forest, and their instructor said: "Look up and imagine that you're a bug. This is what grass looks like to bugs."
And Taylor was there when the kids went to a dairy farm nearby, and it was feeding time for the new calves. It stank even worse of manure, and the big cows had enormous udders, and there were silos and a red barn and old, barking dogs and several barn cats. It was weird. But it was starting to get wonderful.