Why, as a Teacher, I Take Boys Outside with St. John Bosco

Too Often, Our Education System Fails to Reach Boys

My first training and work in education began at an outdoor education center. At the start of every week, fresh busloads of children would arrive with their teachers, and as the children were introduced to the grounds and settled into their lodging, the teachers would meet with us to give us the rundown on the group. Over and over again, the scenario repeated itself: The teachers would warn us about this and that child: They would be disruptive, won’t listen, are on all these medications, will be violent, etc… and at the end of the week, I would look back and see that it was precisely those children who were the most amazing: great leaders, full of excitement, soaking up everything and always wanting to learn more! Though one of the most memorable of those children was a spunky girl, the majority of them were boys: all of them children who didn’t fit into the mold of our typical educational system.

Boys are not girls. They are not designed to sit silently in a desk inside all day and be talked at. (Whether girls are is another issue.) Boys naturally show affection for each other (though often unconsciously) by punching and pushing each other. They need to run, to touch, to solve visible physical challenges. They long for- and they need to be called to greatness and to virtue, to train to rightly use and develop their natural capacity to fight for goodness, to protect the innocent and vulnerable, to venture, and to lead. The word, virtue comes from the Latin virtus, meaning “virtue” and “strength.” Virtus comes from the root, vir, meaning specifically “man”: not mankind or human (in Latin, homo), but specifically “masculine”. There is a reason for that connection: Boys were made to be real (virtuous) men. When they are called to the challenge, they recognize it from their depths and they generally rise to the occasion.

Unfortunately, our typical school systems seem to ignore the nature of boys and just try to cram them into their molds. Rather than true education, which is primarily about reaching in and educing (i.e., bringing forth from within) the goodness inside and lighting the lamps of their intellect to inspire and enable their natural search for truth; they are often treated as faceless jars to be filled with information. When the attempt isn’t successful, the boys are often viewed and treated as broken girls. “The girls can sit quietly and keep their hands to themselves; what is wrong with these boys?!”

As a high school teacher at an all-male school, I commonly have students who are full of life and character, intelligence and fun, humor, creativity, and moral virtue while in our environment; yet, they lament that at their elementary school, they always felt like they were disliked by their teachers. They were constantly getting in trouble and felt like they were blamed when they didn’t believe that they had done anything wrong. It seemed to them that the girls were beloved, but the boys were just thorns in their teacher’s side.

St. John Bosco

St. John Bosco had a love for such boys. He worked largely with the poor boys: the boys on the street, who were cast out, uneducated, and unwanted. Knowing well that children need to know you care before they will care what you know, he loved them like a father and showed it, and they knew it and loved him in return. He expected much from them, and they rose to the challenge.

Don Bosco also knew that the best way to build a foundational relationship with his boys was not in a typical classroom, but in recreation:

“Well then, what is needed? That they be loved in the things which they themselves like by a sharing in their youthful interests; in this way they will learn to see your love in matters which naturally speaking are not very pleasing to them, as is the case with study, discipline, and self-denial: in this way they will learn to do these things also with love.[…]

“How are we to go about breaking down this barrier? By a friendly relationship with the boys, especially in recreation. Affection can’t be shown without this friendly relationship, and unless affection is seen there can be no confidence. He who wants to be loved must first show his own love. Our Lord made himself little with the little ones and bore our infirmities. He is our Master in this matter of the friendly approach. A master who is only seen in the master’s chair is just a master and nothing more, but if he goes into recreation with the boys he becomes their brother. […]When a person knows he is loved, he will love in return, and when a person is loved he can get anything, especially from boys.”

Letter from St. John Bosco to his Salesians, from Rome, May 10th, 1884

It is noteworthy that St. John Bosco didn’t just come up with this very successful method himself either. It was revealed to him by the Mother of God Who mystically instructed him in Her method!

I try to follow this method, by loving and appreciating them and showing it, by challenging them, by playing with them, and by taking them outside.

God Through His Creation

“By the greatness of the beauty, and of the creature, the Creator of them may be seen, so as to be known thereby.”

Wisdom 13:5

As St. Paul says in Romans 1:19-20, speaking about God’s creations, “That which is known of God is manifest in them; for, God hath manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity.” In these visible things that God has made: in their beauty and in their greatness “are clearly seen” “the invisible” aspects of God. In the broad sense of the word, God’s creatures are sacraments to us: They are His vestiges: footprints and reflections of the invisible God. As we look around at the mountains, the lakes, the trees, and most of all these beautiful people around us, we can see and deeply know how great and how beautiful is our God! Taking these boys into the wilderness helps them to see God through and in His creations.

But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee, and the birds of the air, and they shall tell thee. Speak to the earth, and it shall answer thee, and the fishes of the sea shall tell. Who is ignorant that the hand of the Lord hath made all these things, in whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the spirit of all flesh of man?

Job 12:7-10

Unplug and Re-Boot!

So many of our young people’s problems today are caused or magnified by their overuse of and addiction to cell phones and social media. Cyber bullying, pornography addiction, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, shallow relationships, social ineptitude, distorted self-worth, depression, etc., etc… I see it every day.

I have also seen what can happen when we remove the phones from them (whether it is by not giving them to them at all, or by taking them into the wilderness and away from their phones for a few days or for a week). When replaced with experiences of real life, lifting their eyes up to see the people and the natural world around them, and showing them what real life can be like (even though they may not have been excited about the idea beforehand) they are always extremely grateful for the experience afterward.

Having led me on an unusual path, God has given me a peculiar skill set and opportunities to combine them and to see these methods with the youth bear fruit. Among other things, with a Masters in Outdoor Education and close to a Doctorate in Theology, I am able to combine my passions, knowledge, and experience to help them discover God, themselves, and each other in the wilderness. I run an outdoor pursuits club at the high school, taking them backpacking, rock climbing, etc., and help to run spiritual mountain retreats.

Once in the wild setting, we have ample opportunities to be challenged and to overcome ourselves, especially in the mountains. Have you ever noticed how often God met or took the prophets and patriarchs of old on a mountaintop? Ever noticed how often Jesus Himself went into the wilderness and especially up on the mountain to pray? There are reasons for these things. Mountains literally point above us to God. They are beautiful, inspiring, challenging, and offer solitude with God. When boys accept the challenge to get themselves and their brothers up a mountain, they are given meaningful opportunities to learn and practice self-denial, courage, perseverance, etc. As St. Augustine said, “Conquer yourself, and the world lies at your feet.” Especially on a mountaintop!

For this reason, I made the outdoor pursuits club t-shirts this year with the logo below, and the boys love it! The quote is loosely taken from an interview with a man who climbed Mt. Everest, adding a small part, and translated into Latin. In English, the quote reads, “No one has ever conquered a mountain; on the mountain, he is given the opportunity to conquer himself.”

And that is why I take boys outside with St. John Bosco. It affords us opportunities to unplug, build relationships, learn, conquer ourselves, and meet God in ways otherwise unafforded. “Super montem excelsum ascende!” [Get thee up on top of a high mountain!] (Isaiah 40:9) Oremus pro invicem.

Article and Images by Stephen Snyder. All Rights Reserved, 2022.