Our seventh grade students and faculty are less than a week away from their trip to Cardigan Mountain in the White Mountain National Forest. Hiking Cardigan is a beloved annual BDS tradition that began with the creation of our middle school. We’ve missed only one year since then: 2020. After that year without them, the preparations, planning, and anticipation by students, families, and teachers have never felt sweeter.
Finding our way back to the milestones and traditions that were put on hold for health and safety reasons over the last year and a half has been an ongoing journey that requires more planning and tugs at the heart than one might initially expect. The playbooks are changing. Unfortunately, we can’t simply run back to the same experiences with the same preparations anymore. As we re-inaugurate our traditions, we do so with the renewed meaning of what we hold dear–the unforgettable collective experience of exploring together and figuring out how to rely on one another.
Much has been written by education and child development experts over the past year-plus about the gaps in traditional experiences which students face due to the pandemic. Even the most mundane moments of interaction–a student sneakily grabbing a classmate’s pencil, for instance–were lessened as students sat six feet apart and were often separated by plexiglass. Thus students lost the opportunity to practice how to “read the room,” decipher the social cues, decide whether to play, argue, to ask for adult intervention or negotiate on their own.
Think for a minute about what is lost or delayed when you add up hundreds, maybe even thousands, of those moments, and how we as humans, especially children, build our way back to understanding each other and working and playing together. What has been most joyous to me is the return of those moments of interdependence, human connection, and development, both happy and sometimes difficult, that students are thrown into again as they travel more freely and confidently around our school this academic year.
As we readied for the trip to Cardigan, a parent mentioned that her child had never hiked a mountain before. With some trepidation in her voice, she asked what the hiking groups would be like and whether her child might be left behind as classmates sped ahead on the trail to get to the top first. I reassured her that we hike in advisory groups, with one adult at the front of the pack and one acting as the caboose, keeping the group together all along the trail. I explained that this was one of the things I loved most about this trip–students are required to stick together to reach the top.
For some students, the measured pace set by the group can be frustrating, as they yearn to gallop far ahead. For others, however, it can be both comforting and a bit stressful. They know their group will not leave them, but they may feel that they’re holding their peers back. What our students don’t always see in the moment, but remember long afterward, are the stories and jokes they told, the advice and vulnerability they shared, and the songs they sang all together because they just happened to never be apart. In these groups, our students learn that nothing is greater than the shared experience and the bonds of human connection that outlast the hike up and down the mountain.
I’m struck by the new light in which I see this upcoming trip to the woods. It is not just the joy and challenges of an outdoor learning opportunity. It is also a cherished chance to stumble and have someone who’s not necessarily your closest friend help steady you, or to see your classmates glowing in campfire light and shared accomplishment before turning in for bed.
Most of all, I see that we’re all that group of seventh graders heading up the mountain. All of us, together, finding a pace that works for everyone. All of us are eager to bag this peak and enjoy a new view. And most importantly, all of us are learning with every step.