WHAT an odd pair we were as we began our walk through the Conservation Land, my reluctant student John and I. After parking the car, I had sprayed us both with insect repellent, although the late spring morning wasn't particularly buggy. Usually our lessons were held at the kitchen table in John's dismal apartment, where he lived with his divorced mother. Like many of my students, he had been expelled from school for gross misconduct, which might have meant an attack on a teacher, a fire set in a wastebasket, or an especially vicious fight with a fellow student. I am called in for tutoring to maintain a tenuous contact with education while the authorities search for a special school suited to his needs.
Biology is a course that cries out for more than a few minutes with a textbook at the kitchen table, so I had promised John a field trip. Perhaps I should admit that I had threatened him with a field trip.
So here we were, a white-haired teacher and my 15-year-old charge. He began complaining loudly about the bugs. ``They're in my hair! All over me!'' he whined as his arms flailed the air.
``Don't pay any attention to them. Just a few mosquitoes.''
He strode along the trail behind me, shoulders hunched, head down, eyes fixed on a spot just ahead of his feet. I pointed out a tiny pine seedling. ``Can I pull it up?''
Patiently I explained that nothing is to be removed from Conservation Land, and even if we were to move it, it would have to be dug carefully and not pulled.
A chickadee came down from high in a pine tree, looked us over, and with a cheery ``dee dee'' returned to its aerial domain. Blue jays bobbed their heads as they called their raucous concern from a hemlock branch.
``These bugs! They're driving me crazy,'' John complained, waving his arms wildly.
At this point, I'm afraid I lost some of my tutorial aplomb. I stopped in my tracks, turned around to face him. ``For heaven's sake, stop it! You think you are pretty street-smart, don't you? You know how to run away from the cops, and things like that. Well, you aren't very woods-smart. Remember, we are in a conservation area. That means that we are the trespassers in this place where nature has the right of way. Now stop your complaining, and let's try to find some mushrooms. We can pick a few, because they come and go quickly.''
Gradually John began to look around a little and there was less muttering about the bugs. He dared look a few feet from the sides of the path and spotted a mushroom or two to add to our small collection.
``Hey, look at that!'' Sometimes I felt that my name had become ``Hey,'' but I considered it better to be called ``Hey'' than not to be called at all.
I looked, but I had no idea how far I was supposed to look. He moved closer to me, hesitantly standing beside me, as if that violated one of his rules about teachers. ``Hey, can't you see? Right over there. A duck.''
Finally I saw it. ``Oh, yes, a mallard. Its mate is probably close by. They usually nest at the edge of this pond. Let's see if we can find her nest.''
We left the path, made our way several yards to the edge of the pond, and soon found the well-camouflaged nest of brown leaves and twigs. The female mallard, also brown, simply flattened herself on the nest and became almost invisible. The male swam in worried circles nearby, his green head and white neckband scintillating in the morning sun. We watched for a few minutes in silence.
Soon it was time to return to the car. ``You sure had a heck of a time seeing that duck,'' John mumbled.
``I sure did,'' I admitted. Did I sense a small feeling of camaraderie? Were we a bit closer than before? Only time would tell.