Eric Pearlstein isn't the kind of guy to back down from a challenge -- not even when the first shot of snowy weather for the season threatened a school camping event.
In fact, the Boston Elementary Valley School principal likes a good challenge so much, he has issued one to the students of his school every summer for the past 11 years.
This year, he told his 297 students that if they completed 100,000 points worth of summer projects, he would spend a night camping outside in the school's new outdoor classroom/shelter and -- as a reward -- would invite them and their parents to enjoy a campfire-sing-along in the early evening.
Pupils of the school, which houses kindergarten through fifth grade, not only met the goal but surpassed it by 50,000 points. And plans for the outdoor celebration had to be changed when Tuesday night became a tad wintry.
So, the sing-along and related merriment shuffled off to the auditorium. About 8:30 p.m that night, after the last song had been sung and tall tale told, the principal bade his charges a good night, grabbed his sleeping bag and headed for his tent -- in the wilds of the auditorium stage, where he spent the night with little more than the glow of a faux fire for company.
"If you want kids to strive, you have to be an example," Pearlstein said. "I want to show them that they can pick goals, even if they're a little off-the-wall, and still go for them."
Over the years, Pearlstein has set many bars for the kids and himself -- such as in 1999, when he promised to walk a foot for every page pupils read over the summer break. That fall, Pearlstein ended up walking 26 miles, from the school all the way to the Central Library downtown.
In 2000, he put an election-year spin on the reward. He walked with his pupils to different polling places in Boston, carrying "Don't Forget to Vote" signs. The next day he walked from the school to his own polling district in Amherst, 28 miles away.
Other challenges involved kayaking the Eric Canal and biking the Underground Railroad trail into Canada.
Besides reading, the challenges for the pupils included math and creative writing.
Pearlstein said the challenges help fill a summer learning void: Studies show kids lose up to two months of scholastic progress over the summer.
And the kids enjoy the challenge.
Third-grader Matthew Hess said he read more than 100 books this summer and would have been bored without the challenge.
Tori Gamel, a second-grader, who took pictures of her dog and painted, said that because of the projects she "felt ready to do more stuff" when she returned to school in September.
The auditorium camp-out was a bittersweet payoff for the kids and Pearlstein, who is retiring at the end of the school year.
But on Wednesday morning, the kids were eager to see how their adventurous principal fared. They rushed into the auditorium and onto the stage, where the campsite was still intact. They examined the sleeping bag and fired off a bevy of questions:
Was he scared?
Did he sleep at all?
Was he tired?
Pearlstein's responses: No, a little, and yes.