If it started out as anything, it was as a gesture of politeness.I was sitting in the front seat of a crowded, fusty minibus – zipping down the dual carriageway from the most Eastern tip of the Highlands back to pastoral Fife. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme 2006 participants of Madras College had all successfully completed their Gold level Expedition. The 4-day hiking and camping trek through the remotest trails of Scotland was just one of the 5 sections Gold participants had to complete, but it was also the hardest. When we finished our Gold DoE Expedition it was also the culmination of approximately 4 years’ worth of Duke of Edinburgh training (Bronze level started in 3rd year at school and typically took 12 months to complete, Silver and Gold ran in the consecutive years). After Gold the participants were finished. No more award levels. No more expeditions.
For me the journey had been an exhilarating one. The ‘Service’ ‘Skills’ and ‘Physical’ Sections of DoE didn’t require making many alterations to my life – I just used the activities I was already doing for the most part – but the ‘Expedition’ section was something else. The Expeditions; their training, weekly planning meetings and qualifying expeditions were a challenge. Not on the physical stamina side for I was fit and had familiarity with hillwalking – but in doing all this in a group with 5 of my peers. I was an introvert and a loner through most of secondary school – interacting with girls my own age was mystifying and frustrating. To do so in the context of a group stuck together in the middle of nowhere was oftentimes taxing on my social skills.
Yet by Gold I was finally getting the hang of it. I loved everything about the Expeditions – for in the majority of cases I got on OK with the others. The preparation. Getting changed in the toilets on Friday at 3.35pm from school uniform into boots and hiking gear. Being in the gorgeous Highlands and reaching harmony with nature. Returning to school with a windburned face, bruised shoulders from my backpack and a dreamy happiness…it was all amazing.
Still, here I was on this fusty minibus – damp woollen socks and days-old sweat – resting my blistered feet and having my emotions hover somewhere between elevation and sadness. I’d survived the toughest expedition…but had reached the end of the line in my DoE journey.
Being (as I have already alluded to above) a bit of a loner, it was me in the front row seat with the member of staff driving the bus home. Her name was Jean – an eccentric, outspoken woman who intimidated the Hell out of most of her pupils, but who I was coming to respect a lot. At this point on the long ride home I said something that I thought was mainly a polite thing to say, given the circumstances.
“If you need any assistance with future DoE Expeditions…well, I’d be happy to help out.”
Jean in fact told me to convey that directly to the teacher who organised the Madras DoE Group. I was mildly surprised to have my gesture accepted so readily…but took Jean at her word and did relay the message a little while later.
It has now been 7 whole years since that minibus conversation. Damn, really?!
I’ve finished secondary school.
I’ve finished university.
I’ve lived and worked abroad in two new countries for a total of 2 years.
…And I’m still helping out with Madras College’s DoE Expeditions.The reason I was taken up so readily on my offer was that the DoE Group are always in need of female staff out of the hills. Male teachers with a Mountain Leader qualification aren’t hard to come by; there are fewer qualified female staff…but usually equal numbers of girls:boys at all Expedition levels. Health & Safety stipulate that a female supervisor must camp within range of a girls group. Jean sadly died a couple of years after my Gold journey ended, another female member of DoE staff lost her outdoorsy partner and found it too hard to continue helping on the DoE without him.
It also helped that I was an experienced, strong hillwalker who could be trusted as a leader-figure out in the wilderness. And of course that I really enjoyed the DoE experience.
As I’ve become older I find it more and more rewarding watching as the DoE pupils grow during the years they take part in the Award. Ages 14-16/17 years covers an awful lot of maturation: the baby-faced Silver boys who came up to my shoulder are now strapping Gold lads with stubble. Yet they still have an innocence and energy that will shift dramatically as soon as they hit university – I know that from experience. The hyperactive girls who did DoE Bronze to score points on their CV are replaced by calmer, more grounded ladies at Gold.
While there are always a portion of DoE participants who come along from outdoorsy families and have been camping in the Highlands ever since they were 5…most of them are like me: someone who loves being active outdoors, but who doesn’t go camping or walking regularly, and rarely with their family. My hope is that these pupils will go on to become more outdoorsy later in life thanks to their DoE experience. I hope that by assisting with the DoE I set a positive role model for pupils taking part. For me leadership is about hiking 5km over swamp land in the driving rain to cheerfully greet the group at a checkpoint, raising their spirits for the rest of the trek.
***Before I leave the UK for the States I plan to complete my Summer Mountain Leader UK award. The Award will certify my abilities to navigate, lead, respond to emergencies and handle groups on difficult terrain. I completed my initial training back in 2008 before entering my “Consolidation” period to acquire more experience. Of course, my life underwent a lot of unexpected changes following on from that year – summer became a time when I was moving countries, not exploring the Highlands. For about 3 years my New Year’s Resolutions have included ‘Get my ML Award’. I’ve finally acquired the momentum to achieve that and have booked my Assessment course.
I don’t intend to give up the DoE just because I’m in another country (besides, the DoE Award Scheme is available in the States) – my summer holidays in the UK will be timed to coincide with Madras’ expedition dates. As far as I’m concerned, I still owe them.