By second grade, it was clear that while Zack Smith could sit in a chair, he had no intention of staying in it. He was disruptive in class, spoke in a loud voice, and had a hard time taking turns with others. His parents fed him a series of medications for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, many of which didn’t work. Zack, who attended school in West Hartford, Connecticut, was placed in special classrooms where he showed a propensity for lashing out. Twice suspended, he was miserable. He didn’t seem to care about anything at school. When his parents realized that his path would likely lead to worse trouble, they pulled the ripcord on eighth grade.
Where Zack eventually landed is clinging spread-eagle to an east-facing slab of quartzite in the West Virginia panhandle. His chin-length, strawberry blond hair curls out beneath a Minion-yellow helmet. A harness cinches his T-shirt—the sleeves of which have been ripped off—obscuring the Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare lettering.
“I have a wedgie!” he bellows out from 20 feet up.
Belaying him is another 14-year-old—pale, earnest Daniel. Earlier in the day, Daniel asked, “Do I have to belay? I’m only 95 pounds.” Both kids still look a little apprehensive, but there’s no question that they are paying full attention to the wall of rock and to the rope that unites them. Yesterday beneath a picnic awning in a campground near Seneca Rocks, they and 12 other scrappy teens from the Academy at SOAR learned how to tie figure-eights and Prusiks, the knots that would safeguard their lives, under the tutelage of trip leader Joseph Geier, the academy’s director, and seven other energetic field instructors mostly in their twenties. The students’ ages span five years, but in the spectrum of puberty, the younger kids look like they could be the square roots of the biggest ones. Zack occupies an awkward middle ground, lanky and knock-kneed, with a surprisingly deep voice and a crooked smile.