"Oh shit."

If this would not be your reaction to the words Arthur had just spoken to Gonzalo and I at the beginning of September on the Hop en Grut farm, then you are indeed a better person than either of us.

"On Monday there will be twenty 12-year-olds arriving at the farm. They will be staying for one week. You will be partly responsible for looking after and working with them. We'll talk more about it later." Arthur walked away with his wooden shoes, fit for a giant, leaving a thundering click or clack behind with each step.

Arthur had a working arrangement with the Waldorf school of Groningen that had been going on for some years. Each year a group of new classmates would start their school year off with a week of camping and farming. The Waldorf schools and the students at them are different from any others. The schools are anthroposophical and focus on creative, imaginative development of students with teachings from instructors who have more say in the curriculum - taught at a higher level.

Being in touch with nature was at the heart of this one week farm adventure for these students, but I couldn't help but observe the bonding that was continuously strengthening during their stay. These students would be classmates with only each other for the next six years. By the time school would finish for them, they would be more like brothers and sisters, each and every one of them. (Later, in Italy, I would see my theory on this different school structure come to life at a class reunion of 40-somes. It was much more like a family reunion. Amazing. More on that later.) If a trip of this nature was mandatory for students in the US at the beginning of each year, I could almost guarantee a drastic drop in bullying, outcast situations, dropouts, etc. To share such a unique and challenging event together when they were just meeting clearly set the perfect groundwork for friendship and respect upon return to reality.

I can't say that my initial "oh shit" reaction would be any different today if a similar situation were proposed, but I can say that when the short week was over, I was sad to see each and every one of the students ride their bicycles away from the farm. Thanks to the excellent English speaking of at least 1/2 of the children, we had all been able to bond a good bit - bond over games, furry pets, and even lost teeth.

A typical day during their stay would start with a breakfast in the middle of the big meadow where bread and various sugary spreads were passed around the table. It was at this table that I was introduced to Speculoos - essentially a traditional Dutch cookie in the form and consistency of peanut butter - a disgusting but wonderful introduction it was. Another toast topping favorite during these mornings was a sprinkle like candy, Hagelslag, which Arthur lovingly referred to as "cut-up woman's dress" due to it's sometimes multicolored pieces. "Pass the cut up woman's dress, please."

The children were divided into three working groups and after breakfast, we got to it. Alternating tasks, the groups would go to their daily assigned post. One group reported to Inga, a teacher from their school, in the barn. This particular barn belonged to the sheep and a few days before the class arrived G and I spent an afternoon transforming it from a shit cabin (literal shit) to a working, outdoor kitchen. Work for that day's lunch was done by the children with Inga's instruction and began right after breakfast with most ingredients coming from the Hop en Grut garden. Arthur, myself, and many of the students (who Arthur says have "cool hippie parents") were vegetarian. The meals were catered to us with absolutely no "I miss meat" complaints from the others.

Another group would report to Arthur at the GIANT compost pile each day. Work there was to completely turn the compost and remove what was finished to a new pile closer to the garden. In the weeks to follow, it would be my work to prepare the garden soil for winter and cover grow plots with this compost pile. The children would often try to get away with not being in the compost group. It was indeed, another "shitty" job.

The third group would report to Gonzolo and I or Benedetta in the vegetable or sun garden. We worked as a team to clean the many beds in the garden, harvest squash, basil, spinach, and begin a new compost pile. In the sun garden, Gonzolo taught the children about ladybugs being a sign of a healthy garden. I introduced some of the children to the flowers and seeds of the Nasturtium plant, the spicy flower quickly becoming a favorite snack of theirs.

The kids were given a break for tea around 11 and after a short hour back to work, lunch was at or around 1. When lunch was finished the work day was officially over and some sort of activity would begin. One day we all rode bikes to a local swimming pool. One day we went on a very long walk to an open field to play a game and then ended up walking back in thick, cold rain with puddles for shoes. One day we just played with the sheep. One day we rode bicycles to the village of Bortange to watch a Dutch account of the village's history and to patron the old candy shops that were still in business there. No such thing as a dull moment with this group.

The night before the children left was "theatre night." They spent the day preparing a show for us. I couldn't remember laughing so hard in a such a long time as they performed around the campfire. A group of kids who had only just met felt completely comfortable singing, dancing, and acting around each other. I'd never seen anything like it.

After the show, some tea, and the only chips I would eat during my entire European stay, we slept. In the morning, after breakfast and the deconstruction of the children's extremely complicated, pain-in-the-ass tents, Gonzalo and I stood in front of the farm as every single student dismounted and kick-standed their bicycle to enter into a hug line that led directly to us. 


  1. I think I'd have the same reaction. Something maybe along the lines of, "I didn't fly all the way over here to babysit!" Of course, life has a nice habit of being surprising. I'm glad you ended up enjoying it so much. These photos make the week look magical.

  2. Guiding 20 twelve year olds does sound scary but your words & photos tell a different story.