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EDUCATION BEAT | Haunted forests and headless horsemen

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Talley, Ben  Education Beat (mug)

Ben Talley | Education Beat

Children of all ages love being delightfully frightened. And if it’s the “right” kind of fright, their being scared can be very good for them. Lord knows they will be frightened many times in life. When we show them as children how to confront and face down their fears, we make life’s path much less scary for them.

We called it the Black Forest for good reason. If you dared to venture through it on a moonless night, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.

The Black Forest at Sugar Hollow Park in Bristol was the perfect venue for my Haunted Forest tours, which I once offered to hundreds of kids near Halloween each year. Indeed, ’twas a special time and place for children to learn how to face down their fears.

Former students of mine (who were now in high school or college) leaped out at opportune times to mortify the wits out of the little waifs who waltzed by in utter darkness.

The big kids got quite creative in frightening the smaller ones, although about all it took was leaping out from behind a tree with a scary mask on.

Anything like falling into hidden slime pits or running through fake spider webs were mere bonuses. So were self-opening coffins and a myriad of creepy sound effects (all of which we may, or may not, have created).

Of course, no harm was done and the children were gleefully thrilled by this type of fright — because they were at that marvelous age when they can begin to learn how to separate fact from fantasy.

The children naturally loved helping each other through the Haunted Forest — and I always gave “extra points” to each group that made it through with nary a scratch nor a whine (blood curdling screams were quite OK, however).

One particular year, while leading the tour within the woods behind my old homeplace in Sunnybrook, I paused each time at the mouth of a cave, where we spellbindingly waited on a homeless individual to emerge from within. I told everyone that the poor soul ate the moss growing on the side of the cave entrance just to stay alive. (Each group had already been instructed to bring along scraps of food left over from our campfire supper.)

Everyone tossed their scraps toward the mouth of the cave, where the homeless individual could be seen scooping up scraps and waving back gratefully.

Well, lo and behold, at the end of my third tour, here came a parent with blankets and groceries.

“I ran over to Wal-Mart and bought these for that poor soul,” the dear lady announced.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her the homeless individual was just another parent, merely portraying someone. It would have embarrassed her in front of everyone else. Perhaps the “homeless” parent and I should have received Academy Award nominations that night. I certainly felt that this particular episode taught the children not to be afraid of — and even show empathy for — individuals labeled by society as “different.”

At yet another Haunted Forest at my old homeplace a parent who owned a big and black-as-night horse donned the full attire of the legendary Headless Horseman of “Sleepy Hollow” fame.

I talked the legend up for the better part of an hour before dark, all the while edging the children ever closer to the cave, from whence I predicted the horseman would make his appearance at the very coming of dusk.

The children peered and squinted and gawked down toward the cave. If anyone looked away, even for an instant, I was quick to redirect their gaze. “You must look toward the cave,” I insisted, “Or you’ll miss your one chance to see the Headless Horseman!”

Suddenly we heard the pounding of hooves. Everyone turned around to see the Headless Horseman riding straight toward us. From behind. With no head above his shoulders.

The Horseman hurled his “head,” which he held in one hand (yes, it was a jack-o’-lantern), toward our feet. Then he faded back into the black as quickly as he came, having seared his brief visit into the most joyously frightful memories of many a child for a lifetime.

Ben Talley is a member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, a former Virginia Teacher of the Year, a McGlothlin Award Winner for Teaching Excellence, and a recipient of the Bristol Mayors Award for a lifetime of community service to his hometown.

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