~Matt Norcini, Dean of Student Life
It was mid-morning on Day 5, and these were our final hours together. We were back at Fort Washington State Park, and the students were busy cleaning—water bottles, dinner bowls, equipment—the objects that had been so new to us just five days ago but which had, by now, become a part of us, our routine, the things that had provided comfort in the unknown. Sentimentally attached as some might be to these objects, though, I’m pretty sure everyone was ready to wash their food bowls. By the morning of Day 5, those bowls had become a fossil dig through four days of meals.
The final meal we shared around the campfire on the previous night bore witness to the power of the experience. Students who hardly knew each other on Tuesday morning were now laughing, hugging, and making themselves vulnerable during reflection time. It was a great night, capped with an awkward but entertaining talent show and, of course, s’mores. While I was ready for a shower and to see my family, part of me wasn’t ready for the experience to end.
But end it must. So, I was left with the questions that accompany any memorable trip or experience. What would become of the experiences we shared? What stories will these students tell or remember as time passes? Will the bond this group displays at this moment, as we sit around the fire, last beyond their journey? What, ultimately, will this trip mean for each of them—if anything at all?
For me, the story I tell—the one that I have told over and over again—is the story of a group of students who spent the first day in stunned silence, anxious about the experience ahead of them and who, through the careful and deliberate efforts of Outward Bound facilitators and the inherent discomfort of trail life, forged into a single, cohesive band of travelers. I tell the story of my worry for these students, that they would spend the trip in miserable contemplative silence and then launch their high school careers having emerged from a frustrating and cumbersome adventure in the woods. That was the worry I carried through much of the first half of the trip.
As an educator for 16 years who has grown accustomed to the careful orchestration of activities, simulations, and discussions in my classroom, being an adult on Outward Bound was a challenge. As the chaperone of G-Unit, I was neither participant nor facilitator, yet I cared deeply for these students, and I wanted to do what I could to craft a meaningful experience for them. Ultimately, what Outward Bound taught me is that I had to let go, I had to let the students have their own experience, and I had to appreciate the opportunity to watch the growth and experience from the sidelines. I witnessed their triumphs and failures, suffered through hours of silence and miles of trail, but it all helped me fully appreciate the moment they started to come together, and the students took full ownership for their experience and for each other. There is nothing more rewarding than witnessing moments like that.
We know that as teachers and as parents. We can nurture, guide, facilitate, but no matter how hard we try, those moments and experiences cannot be made by us. They must come from within our students and children themselves, and, ultimately, that’s what truly makes them special.
Now, a couple months removed from the experience, I hear the students’ stories evolving, as some memories fade and others grow more dear. For some students, Outward Bound gave them a new self-awareness, interest, or friends. For others, the experience definitively confirmed for them that they have no business or interest in the outdoors. And for others still, the experience meant something completely different.
Every participant takes something from an Outward Bound expedition. What that thing is might not be clear at first, or even at three months, a year, or three years removed from the trip. The meaning of the trip isn’t something we as teachers and parents can control—it has to develop on its own. However, if you listen closely, you can hear that thing starting to take shape in the stories they tell.