“Are you going to write about this?” Sometimes, students ask me this question. They know I often write for the school’s blog, and they know I’m constantly on the watch for inspiration. But, so help me, I had never been asked the question while hiking up a mountain and worrying about whether I was letting the kids literally lead us down the wrong path.
Mountain Day 2016 began like any other Mountain Day. I happened to arrive just as the Seniors were gathering at Recep and preparing to wake up the school and announce the happy news that we would have a day off from classes. Early-arriving Seniors talked about college planning as at first a trickle and then a flood of members of the Class of 2017 arrived, all with smiles on their faces though some of those faces were still somewhat vague with sleepiness.
An hour later, I was back at Recep, ready to help drive the first group of kids to breakfast. Sally and I were sharing three groups in the WAV (14-passenger bus) and the Sienna, and we set out for Hagar’s Market up on the Mohawk Trail. The kids were relaxed and happy, living utterly and completely in the moment. Seniors were committed to ensuring their littles enjoyed the breakfast to which they were being treated; littles were grateful. And hungry.
Pre-housemeeting chatter was louder than usual as we gathered in the Capen Room ready to board the buses. Several little sisters shared what their big sisters had done for breakfast, plans for post-Mountain athletics were clarified, faculty left so the students could have their private pre-Mountain chat, and we all boarded the buses and headed for Mount Skinner (a.k.a. Mount Holyoke).
This year, some of the faculty were taking the road up, so big sister groups had three choices: the long and gradual trail with multiple vistas, the short and steep trail that was the fastest, and the road. I started with the long and gradual group until I realized that teachers were way over-represented. I turned to someone near me as we both looked over our shoulders at the flood of students heading in the other direction, and murmured, “They probably should have more teachers, shouldn’t they?” The other teacher nodded, and I continued, “I’ll go.” and I joined up with another teacher bringing up the rear.
A few minutes later, a group of kids broke from the main clump and headed toward an opening in the woods, calling, “Can we go this way?” Several teachers answered yes, and they responded, “We need a teacher.” I turned to my companion and said, “I’ll go,” and joined the group.
A short distance later, we came across a beautiful free-standing stone fireplace in the middle of the woods. The trail continued off to the left, but markedly less… marked. The lead students had already started up, and those of us behind them followed. But the trail was decidedly less travelled by, and I began to feel uneasy. At one point, I heard one of the lead students say to her friend, “We’re okay. We have a teacher with us.” I didn’t find that as comforting as they did.
Five or so minutes later, we held a conference. I believe in always being honest with kids, and I said, “As long as it’s clear how we would have to go back if we have to turn around and retrace our path, I’m good. It becomes a question of whether you want to risk having to turn back if the way just becomes too unclear.” We resolved to continue and have faith the path would lead to our destination.
At one point, the climb became a little more difficult, and I became aware the student behind me was having difficulties finding footholds and handholds that gave her sufficient confidence. We developed a system where I would say, “Okay, I’m going to move my right foot now. Put yours where mine was.” Occasionally, she would say, “No, I’m going to put my left foot there.” or I would mess up and move before she saw where my foot had been and she would have to make the next placement herself. She never hesitated, never complained, never mentioned any regrets about taking the route. She simply, literally, put one foot in front of the other until we were through.
It was somewhere during this process that she asked if I was going to write about this, at which point I resolved that I would.
The path did join up with another slightly-better-worn trail, which joined up with another actually marked trail, which dumped us onto the wide, steep trail with which I was familiar. By then, too, we could hear whoops and hollers and knew we were getting close. “Call us the ‘Against All Odds’ group,” I commented as the lead students quickened the pace almost to the point where they were running. And then we joined the throngs of students milling about talking, taking selfies with their friends, taking pictures of the view, taking selfies with their friends with the view in the background. Mike and the dining hall crew had set up for lunch, and the rest of the day including Octet singing at our “top of the mountain housemeeting” and the taking of class pictures proceeded as normal. All students looked happy, as did all the adults who had made the trek.
For many alums, Mountain Days are among their most treasured memories. For me, too. As Mrs. Peterson said during housemeeting, when you let go and trust in students, things tend to work out.