Any Old Rochester 7th-grader who’s lived in the Tri-Town since the early 1970s knows what it’s like to experience Survival. Some of those very first ORR Junior High School students to experience a Survival excursion, which is the annual end-of-the-year trudge into a classroom like no other — the wilderness — are now pushing 60. But during a time when teenagers are likely more adept at creating computer programs and coding and less skilled at tasks like starting a fire in the wild or pitching a tent, Survival may just be more relevant today than it was decades ago.
What started out as a one-day trek into the woods of the much less-developed Rochester of yore is now a week-long immersion in the woods of western Massachusetts, and a deeply embedded Tri-Town tradition that has survived three generations of Tri-Townies, enduring as a common right of passage for its youth year after year after year.
Early this Sunday morning, Tri-Town’s current 7th-graders became the next line of students to stare down that “shared road to a stronger self,” converging in front of the junior high with those who chose that shared road as Survival guides. Long lines of backpacks waited in crooked rows across the lawn while the 7th-graders, older students who’ve already done Survival, and their adult leaders mingled in small groups and mentally prepared for the challenging week ahead. They’ve already physically prepared for the experience, having been assigned a list of required gear and physical training activities, but how would they cope emotionally, away from their parents, pets, comfy beds, and electronic devices?
Kevin “KT” Thompson knew exactly what the kids were feeling that bright and breezy morning, having experienced Survival himself as a 7th-grader in 1988 and every year since, with his involvement, now in its 30th year. “Cautiously excited” is one of those prevailing ambiguous sentiments, Thompson said.
“They’re probably thinking they’re half excited and half ‘what am I gonna do without my PlayStation or my cell phone?” said Thompson. And there are no Dunkin’ Donuts out there, either, he said. But the sacrifice is worth it, added Thompson, because Survival gives the kids more than the caffeine jolt of an iced coffee ever could– it gives them confidence, self-reliance, and a life-changing experience.
The environment is controlled, said Thompson, and it’s safe. But it’s unknown and unpredictable, “And they just know that it’s gonna be hard,” Thompson said.
“They’ll be learning to do things they never imagined they’d be able to do,” he said. “Surviving a week in the woods without technology, especially in a society that’s so dependent on technology – going completely old school.”
Thompson, a Scout in his boyhood and now a Scout leader in Rochester, knows all about what old school entails.
“This is my bread and butter and it enables me to bring those kinds of skills to them,” said Thompson. “And most of them don’t really know what it does for them, what it teaches them – to be independent, but working with others. Right now, they’re too young to know what it means.”
As part of the challenge, students are required to make their own shelters out of the natural materials they find in the woods, said Thompson. “They make it, they live in it, it’s their responsibility.”
And the community has been overwhelmingly supportive of the annual endeavor, Thompson added.
“It’s a 45-year program that’s got more community support than anything I’ve ever seen,” he said. The towns provide some funding, and local police and fire, Survival graduates, and a host of other members of the community either donate to the program or attend in in some capacity as leaders, guides, and assistants. “It’s massive,” said Thompson.
As the busses pulled up, it was last call for iced coffee and a quick assessment of the required gear: rollup sleeping mat, check. Water bottle, check. Tartan kilt, check — but only if you’re KT.
The boys with their baseball caps and the girls with their carefully tightened braids to keep camp hair away loaded their packs, gave one last goodbye hug to their mom, and boarded the busses. Next stop for the excited students: Northfield, Massachusetts for Survival 2018. As for the moms, they wiped their tears and retreated home to their child’s room to smell their pillow until the return of their beloved survivors – who, according to Thompson, will be back smelling less sweet, and more like survival.
By Jean Perry