Simmons’ Project: Challenge Yourself

Jessica Coleman

Jon Krakauer’s novel Into the Wild uncovers the story of Chris McCandless, a young man who ventured into the wilderness in order to escape high expectations, family issues and materialism within society. With little help from others, he traveled without money or shelter to various destinations before reaching his goal, Alaska.

Senior English teacher Ed Simmons created the “Challenge Project,” modeled after McCandless’s expedition, to encourage his seniors to commit to a difficult goal. Each person focuses on a personal weakness, or tackles an obstacle. The project gives students the ability to test their mental, physical and emotional strength. Here are some favorite projects of  2010 that exemplify inspiring and thought provoking challenges:

Will Burkart: Stand Up Comedy

Will Burkart chose stand-up comedy for his project because he wanted to step out of his comfort zone and find the courage to perform.

“Doing stand-up is one of the most nerve wracking things you can do. I’ve always wanted to do stand-up, but it was hard to find the courage to get up there,” said Burkart.

Burkart’s interest in stand-up comedy began in middle school when he would listen to his favorite comedians on CDs. In order to prepare material for his routine, he worked on jokes even before the challenge was assigned. He crafted his jokes into a solid stream of consciousness and began to memorize. The Brainwash Café in San Francisco hosts an open mic comedy night, where Burkart assumed there would be a light, flighty crowd of coffee-lovers weaving in and out.

“I thought there was going to be about 10 or 20 people, but there were 60 people,” said Burkart. “It was quite a rush standing by the stage waiting for the host to finish my introduction right before I went up.”With adrenaline pumping, Burkart did his three-minute set in front of the growing crowd.

“Most of it was a blur because I was so nervous,” said Burkart. “I got a great applause at the beginning and the end, and some good laughs also.”

The positive reaction at the café has inspired Burkart to concentrate on his writing so he can write material that makes people laugh.

“One of my jokes is about how lazy I am. Let’s say a light bulb goes out in a room, I’m not going to fix that light bulb. Instead I would convince myself, ‘Well, I guess I can’t see in that room anymore.’”

Blake Swimmer: Navigation

Chris McCandless hitchiked his way to Alaska, where he embarked into the wilderness without food, shelter or technology. Blake Swimmer, with the help of Brian Friel and Andrew Pisces, emulated McCandless’s journey for his project. They were blindfolded by Friel’s parents and dropped off at an unknown location. When they got out of the car, they were stunned. Near Huntsaker Canyon in Lafayette, the trio was unable to identify their location. Their motivation was to return home, but it proved to be difficult without technology to navigate them.

“We literally guessed where we should go,” said Swimmer. “The terrain changed from streets to hills where we had to cross barbed wire.”

Starting on a cool morning, the three seniors tried to navigate their way home without the help of maps or cell phones. They brought food and water to sustain them through their long day, but they found that they did not tire out.

“We were having so much fun that there’s no way we would’ve ever quit,” said Swimmer.

After making a series of lucky guesses, they finally reached the Lafayette Community Center. From there, they knew how to make their way home.

Although unmistakably lost, Swimmer never felt in a life and death situation to the extremity of McCandless’s venture. But similar to McCandless, he experienced inner growth as he trudged along and found his way home.

“I didn’t realize how little I know about Lamorinda,” said Swimmer. “If I know that little about our area, I probably have a lot to learn about America.”

Robert Robinson: Circadian Rhythms (the “inner clock”)

A circadian rhythm is determined by an “inner clock” that allows people to know what time of day it is by using an indicator. Circadian rhythms are influenced only by environmental patterns and clues such as daylight, but are mostly self-sustained. Robert Robinson isolated himself from the outside world by spending three days at his friend Elliot’s house, locked in a room on the ground floor attached to a bathroom, which he calls the “isolation chamber.” They had bread, water, paper and pens, and the windows were covered so that it was hardly possible to tell the time of day.

“Accesibility to food was scarce and we broke our intended bread and water only rule,” said Robinson. “But that was only because we didn’t bring enough food to eat for three days which is a learned lesson in itself. We don’t really measure how much we eat everyday.”

Running out of food early on, Robinson slipped a note asking Elliot’s mom for food under the door. She would slip the note back under when it was ready, and they would open the door and take what was there.

“Because we didn’t specify what food for her to get us, she brought pasta, pizza and In ‘N Out so we failed in that part of our experiment,” said Robinson. Constantly with his friends, he rarely had time to himself, so he took advantage of the mornings by meditating while they slept in.

He also documented his feelings and thoughts in order to cope with the crowded claustrophobia and lack of privacy. Robinson used creative methods to entertain himself and pass the time.

“There was a lot of freestyle rapping, discussions, sleeping and talking about girls,” said Robinson. The three days seemed to last a long time for Robinson as it became harder to tell how much time had passed by. He kept the mood light by entertaining his friends and staying positive.

“We barely fought,” said Robinson. “We only had an argument here or there, but after we got out we hung out that day and didn’t get tired of each other.”

His challenge has inspired Robinson to reflect on his daily life. In comparison to Chris McCandless, who spent three months alone in the Alaskan wilderness, Robinson had minimal, yet meaningful time for internal exploration and contemplation during his isolation period.

“After we ran out of the room we all felt a little uncomfortable and wanted to go back where we knew it was safe and peaceful,” said Robinson.

“Now I aspire to have a place like that all the time where I feel I can just hide.” Robinson’s upbeat nature is slowing down a few paces as he embraces his newfound appreciation for a healthy and relaxing lifestyle.