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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Eyes wide and bright

February, 1999

They couldn’t keep their eyes off of it, city kids staring out at wide open spaces that they’d been told for years was nothing more than some kind of garbage dump, where even to breathe the air meant almost certain death.
City kids from Union City, Weehawken, Guttenberg, West New York, Hoboken, North Bergen and – yes, even Secaucus, all nearly stricken blind the disparity of what they thought they would see when they agreed to come out onto the water on this sunny but brisk day in February, and what they actually were seeing close up – a winter wonderland with bits of ice, but life, too, exotic to their way of thinking and gently swaying fox tail and cat tails and other stalks of brown grass taller than the tallest of the kids in the boat, and strange streams whose secrets were being slowly revealed as the boat edged each.
And these fourth graders were the gifted and talented kids from nine schools throughout the county, not the dullards that played hooky and got detention, so learned little even from books.
These kids were smart kids, book-learned kids, and yet this two day seminar in the Hackensack Meadowlands opened whole new chapters none of their school books provided, chapters read off to them by the education staff of the Meadowlands Environmental Center in Lyndhurst, for whom this was only one of many moving image books they could provide, from one of a variety of programs for children and yes – even teachers – in the region, teaching them lessons on this wondrous mysterious world within ear shot of their front doors – a wilderness many kids had glimpsed from their back end of the Palisades in places like North Bergen, Union City and Jersey City, but never for one instant realized what was really here.
“This really is a journey of discovery for most of these kids,” said Gabrielle Bennett-Meany, education specialist for the Environment Center. “They are amazed that this place is home to so many creatures and they really love getting into the marsh, dipping their nets in the water, and pulling up fish and shrimp. It’s different and it’s exciting for them.”
And the fact that this is right in their own backyard makes it even more thrilling, Meany said.
“This wetlands and estuary system is not a remote, far-off place. It’s right here and it’s accessible. The kids are amazed to find they are sharing the region with egrets, hawks, turtles, snakes and other animals they have only read about in books,” said Meany, looking at their faces, and mine, although seeing on my face a slightly different expression, of a different kind of city kid who had spent as much time on a river as in the streets of Paterson where I grew up, and yet, even I – who thought he had seen it all, had dipped my toes in the most polluted river in America – was amazed.”
This seemingly odd juxtaposition of expansive natural preserve with densely developed areas was not lost on the children, said Rosalyn Nussman, director of the Hudson County Gifted and Talented Consortium of educators, who coordinated the workshop with the staff of the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission – the body charged in 1969 with the orderly development of this area and preservation, although at times these two concepts collided, and left them in the awful position of having to choose which to emphasize. On this trip, they were focused on preservation, and boasting about how much life had returned to the Hackensack, which had come close to competing with the Passaic River I grew up on for pollution.
Manufacturers on both rivers had seen the waterways as a kind of toilet into which they could flush what they wanted, a cheap and easy disposal for a variety of nasty things that later proved deadly, not merely to those things that lived in the water, but the walking, talking, and breathing people who lived along side of it.
As the boat chugged on, some of the eight and nine year olds gasped – at some large white bird I later learned was an egret and at the top half of a familiar building poking over the tops of the reeds and beyond the cliff-like Palisades upon which many of them lived, a building nearly everyone saw every day across the other side of the Hudson River, The Empire State Building, but here, lost among the reeds as if someone had picked it up and dropped off here, the way developers once did pieces of the old Penn Station Railroad Terminal.
“That makes an absolutely wonderful picture for them,” said Nussman. “And they will remember it.”
After a day-long trek through the marshes during which the kids kept journals of what they saw and how they felt, collected samples, and made tree rubbings the students returned the next day for an artists’ workshop where they could describe their new-found knowledge using the performing or visual arts. The students chose from workshops on pottery, mask making, drama, printmaking, dance, puppetry, water colors and experimental orchestra.
Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission staff helped he students express themselves in new, artistic, ways.
Swaying tall reeds were captured through fluid dance movements; the sounds of gurgling water and ruffling grasses were expressed through music.
The dance instructor, Michael Schiocyl, from the Calabro School in Hoboken had them create the environment of the salt marsh through dance and had the children moving like fish. These kids learned a whole new meaning of applying dance to communication.
“They learned it doesn’t have to be ballet in order to be effective, it just has to represent something,” Nussman said, noting also that the most valuable aspect of the two-day workshop was the total integration of art and science. “Kids tend to isolate things, but this experience showed them that there are correlations between the two subjects.  It was interdisciplinary -- a total learning experience -- far above the normal.”
Nussman expects many of the students will return with their parents to walk the trails and river banks of the Meadowlands District.
“They have been introduced to a resource most did not know existed. I am sure they will be back,” she said.
I knew I would be.

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