The Highest Classroom

The week after I got back from Everest Base Camp, I caught an interview on BBC Breakfast with a couple of the teenagers who’d also been on the almost exact same trip for a challenge called “The Highest Classroom on Earth”. This was part of the ‘Extreme Classroom’ project run by the Engage network, (the national body supporting the education of disaffected pupils), and was captured in a BBC documentary shown on the BBC’s World Service channel. Essentially, it consisted of eleven youngsters with serious behavioural problems from special schools across England, plus a number of mentors,  taking part in a life-changing challenge – trekking the Himalayas towards Everest. I’m not entirely sure why the object wasn’t to get to Base Camp itself, given that they went to Gorak Shep, which is only a few hours’ walk away.

While an incredible experience for these teenagers, it must have been awfully challenging for them — far more so in many ways than my trip was for me. Many of them had OCD, difficulties with social interaction, and other issues which must have made it extra hard for them to be in such a cold, wet, hostile and frequently insanitary environment (the dust on our trip was the worst for me, and I hated everything feeling so dirty constantly). They were very unlucky with the weather too, having days of torrential rain and also becoming trapped in the teahouse for 2 days due to snow, although they did get some beautifully warm days. They were also camping for most of the trip, although for some reason, that part was scarcely shown in the programme. Worst of all, they were being filmed constantly. I’ve blogged already about the benefits of going on a trip with complete strangers, and never having to speak to them again after the trip if I didn’t want to, but for these guys, every moment could have been broadcast to people around the world, so you would have had to be much more careful about everything you said and did. Maybe this helped some of them though. If you’re obsessed with cleanliness, as one chap was, it must be your worst nightmare to be permanently covered in dust and have minimal access to water. But there’s no way to get around it, you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it. I’m sure there were moments when the kids had arguments, sulked, cried or just wanted to go home, but the programme showed a largely rosy view of the trip, while still trying to portray it as an ordeal, so we mostly saw people grinning and bearing it in spite of feeling ill or fed up. It wasn’t entirely convincing – I think I’d rather have seen more of the real gritty nature, but that might have been a bit harsh on the youngsters who nevertheless put up a sterling effort, even if many of them didn’t make it all the way. I take my hat off to every one of them though. After all, they were only teenagers. How many people without behavioural problems or special needs, even as adults, would have coped with the trip? In comparison, having diabetes and sight loss feels like almost nothing in comparison, given that I’m an adult in my 40s. In the words of one of my softballing teammates, I should “quit my whining”.

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