Walkin’ Across America and Into the Wild: Exploring Character Through Adventure
Ever since returning from Chile, English class has been exploring and defining character through the lens of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. The work of nonfiction – told from Krakauer’s familiar style which is both journalistic and personal at once – details the story of a young man (feat. in cover photo) who, after graduating with honors from Emory College, gave away his savings and severed ties with his family to seek a solo adventure into the Alaskan wild.
In preparation for an argumentative essay defining “Is Chris McCandless’ character heroic or foolish?” students have been annotating their books with exclamatory responses and probing questions, and practicing the art of graceful disagreement in Harkness discussions. The debate is a hot one. Since his tragic death in 1992, Chris McCandless has proven to be the source of much contention between die-hard admirers (and often imitators) and staunch critics (often from Alaskan natives criticizing McCandless’ suburban background, adolescent bravado, and deliberate lack of preparation).The story strikes a chord with Alzar School students on both sides, as it has with adolescents across the country.
It is so inspiring to hear these young leaders at once empathizing with McCandless’ deep passion for wilderness and adventure, while putting him to trial against the Alzar School’s 10 Elements of Leadership Rubric. Having used this rubric to provide and receive thoughtful feedback on each other’s leadership styles during debriefs, they are practiced at the art of insightful observation. In a Saturday class discussion of Chris McCandless’ character, one student noted McCandless’ generosity of spirit and honesty, citing his journal entries professing his love of Tolstoy and Thoreau as well as his efforts in high school to feed the homeless. Another student acknowledged this “plus” but “delta’d” (or identified room for growth in) his “360° thinking” – essentially the ability to see the big picture and not succumb to tunnel vision. The evidence of this is glaring in retrospect – that McCandless could have survived if he had only searched further downstream to a better crossing, or ventured away from his camp to seek supplies in a well-stocked cabin nearby.
Later in the week they learned to “read an image as a text,” deducing implied artistic meanings from various renderings of Icarus – the tragic Greek icon who, against his father’s instructions, attempted to fly too close to the sun, melting his mechanical wings and tossing him fatally into the sea.
Students learn to apply Greek-rooted words like “hubris” (excessive pride) and “hamartia” (tragic flaw) to icons past and present. They pick each character apart by his motivation and intent, and the impact of his adventure on himself or on the world. They draw from their own experiences on expeditions and journeys abroad, speaking to the impact of adventure on character. They then read more contemporary renderings of Icarus in poems by Anne Sexton, José Rosado, and Edward Field. [See more resources here.]
Yesterday, we were visited by a more contemporary hero:
Andrew Forsthoefel: an enthusiastic adventurer and genuine empathetic listener. After graduating from Middlebury College and losing a job he set out on a 4,000mile journey across America. On foot. His mission? Simply “walking to listen.” He ended up walking from his home in Pennsylvania south to New Orleans and across the west to the Pacific.
He interviewed those he encountered along the way, asking them “what advice they would give their 23 year old selves,” hoping to “figure out where to go next.” The result was a life-changing journey impacting not just this one man but the lives of countless families he encountered who took him in, who shared a meal or a song with him. After the successful conclusion of this epic, he composed an incredible radio story for “This American Life.” Listen here.
We listened to his story, again taking note of his potential character motivations, his intentions for the adventure, and the lasting impacts. Students compared Andrew’s story to McCandless’: similar drive to transcend the “typical path,” differing perhaps in their intent – one to listen, another to escape. Now Andrew is living out of his car, retracing his steps and conducting interviews to fulfill his book deal.
Today he skyped into class to chat with us all.
Students were a-buzz with excitement to meet the legend. Andrew explained more about his journey, about the consistent generosity and openness he was met with by strangers across our country. Students then asked questions ranging from “Why was ‘weep-walking’ your favorite kind of walking?” to “What state has the best food in our country?” They poured over maps when he told them of his route, claiming rights to whose town he’d walked closest to, which state’s food he liked best [Louisiana]. Most of all, I was struck by his ability to be genuine and honest with these young leaders, to treat them like adults and share his fears and challenges, his triumphs and lessons:
“I think one of the greatest lessons I learned,” responds Forstoefel to Jacob’s question, “was the power of being present and open with people. With ‘weep walking’ you’re just overcome with emotion and – although I consider myself a very cerebral person – it’s important to just feel sometimes, and be present in the depth of your emotions.”
[some Americans who shared their stories with Forstoefel – photo cred Andrew F.]
Today we had our Judgment Day where students discussed finally whether Chris McCandless’s character was heroic or foolish. Students drew connections between McCandless and Andrew (“similar drive for personal growth though challenge”), and to leadership (“his personal leadership and follow though made him heroic”), and to their own lives (“I feel some of the same urges against authority, urges to be independent and carve my own path”). They wondered together – “Would anyone have written about him if he had survived?” and “Why did he sign his true name on his S.O.S. note, instead of his pseudonym?” – and recognized their own values that drove them to make judgements.
I can’t wait to see where these critical thinkers take their argumentative essays this week. As we prepare for a week backpacking in the Owyhee desert, I wonder how these students will grow to conceptualize the impact of their own adventures in independence – whether in the classroom, on the trail or river, or at home with family. Soon enough we too walk into the wild.
Click here to learn more about Andrew Forstoefel’s journey across America “Walking to Listen.”
Click here to read more about Chris McCandless’ controversial legacy on the world.