I am standing in the Alewife Salt Marsh, holding out an especially tiny hermit crab to Egan, the delighted 7th grader beside me.
He reaches for it and it plops down in the water again. It scampers away quickly, but Egan – our undeterred resident naturalist- pursues it happily down the marsh. He locates it again, triumphantly laughing as it crawls over his palm. Nearby, a bunch of his classmates are pointing out Snowy Egrets, splashing in the water, and generally carrying on happily; fully immersed in the moment and environment. Something about the scene transports me back to Lighthouse Point Park.
In the fifth grade, my teacher arranged for a field trip to Lighthouse Point Park in New Haven for a nature walk and marine science lesson. I had been to the ocean before, many times, but never in this particular context. I vividly remember the marine educators, and their seine nets, pointing out the sea stars in the tidal creeks and answering questions about the clam shells and horseshoe crab exoskeletons strewn over the beach. I remember walking down toward the lighthouse, watching the waves break in Long Island Sound, and being amazed that all this coastline lay tucked away in Connecticut. I remember wanting to learn more, to learn everything I could about beaches, the oceans, and the planet in general. I was hooked.
When I work with the middle schoolers from Bennie Dover Jackson, I hope somehow that they’re finding this same love and curiosity for their natural environment, and that they’re finding their voices and confidence by exploring the ocean and all it has to offer. In my brief two months of service thus far, I’ve observed dozens of teens and pre-teens dissolve their carefully crafted exteriors and enthusiastically immerse themselves in the world around them. Whether it’s Caleb overcoming his bad day by sailing in Greens Harbor, or Jackie deciding it’s worth it to get her feet a little wet in the creek and pick up some mussels, or whether it’s Jillian finally feeling comfortable on her kayak- I’ve been lucky to witness them fully engage their own curiosity and desire to learn. They work with one another. They are outside having fun. They are silly and goofy, of course, but they are also smart and talented and adventurous to boot. I cannot wait to see how they grow and evolve.
Every time I drive through New Haven I see the exit for Lighthouse Point Park and I smile a little. At the risk of getting in a car accident, I twist a little in my seat as I drive over the bridge in an attempt to gaze over the city toward the rocky beaches in the east. It has been almost fifteen years since I went on a field trip there with Ms. King’s fifth-grade class, but I’ve never forgotten the impression it had on me. I think of the children I work with every day in New London and like to imagine they will have similar memories of the ocean to look back on fondly in the future. Wherever these kids go, and I’m sure many of them will go far, I hope one day they will come back to New London, drive over the bridge, and turn their heads to look out over the seaport towards Greens Harbor. Maybe they’ll see the exit for Ocean Beach State Park and smile a little bit, too.