As most families know, grade level retreats, service learning, and leadership projects dominated the latter part of last week. Each of these events has a different purpose yet all have the overarching goal of helping the students connect more deeply with one another, so that each student’s network of relationships will grow and deepen. We do this because we know that the more secure students are in their relationships with one another and their teachers, the more successful they can be in the classroom. Defenses come down as relationships deepen, and there is both more energy and more freedom to learn when this happens.
While all the retreats and projects are important experiences, by far and away the most magical is the Senior Retreat. Two years ago, (before I was the official Head of School), I attended Commencement and listened as the student speaker, Kevin Nahai, waxed poetically about how those three days changed, for the better, the trajectory of the senior class. As he spoke, I watched the front row of seniors nodding in agreement and wearing big smiles. Last year and this year, I witnessed the effects of the retreat firsthand.
The Senior Retreat combines guided reflection and small group discussion led by expert facilitators from the Ojai Foundation, with group service projects. The natural beauty of the setting, The Painted Turtle, inspires seniors to dig deeply, to participate fully in self-reflection, and to take a fresh look at their classmates. What students see often surprises them. What they hear themselves say, stuns them even more. Talking with many of the seniors upon their return last Friday, I asked them all one question: Did you surprise yourself? After responding with an enthusiastic "yes," each then told a different story. I noticed, however, a common thread—personal courage.
The timing of the retreat is perfect—after the school year has begun, but before the seniors get too deeply entrenched into their individual patterns. It’s also long enough for them to realize that they are indeed seniors and this is their last year at Brentwood. Thus, by the time they head off to The Painted Turtle, they know that this is the best and last opportunity of their years, K–12, to forgive, accept, and connect. The phrase “No Regrets!” comes to mind.
Of course, the real beauty of the retreat is that the senior class that comes back to campus has really done this all for and by itself. Sure, in the early going, the facilitators offer guidance and direction, and faculty and staff offer unlimited support and encouragement, but in the end it is students speaking to students from the heart that makes this retreat transformative. It is a powerful experience and something seniors will remember for their entire lives.
Now don’t get me wrong, this does not mean that they come back to campus as best friends. That is not even the goal. Rather they come back with a new level of understanding and care for one another. They have borne witness to one another’s courage, pain, and joy, and the positive effects that will linger in the air all the way through graduation and well beyond.
An unexpected benefit of the retreat is the impact it has on the other students. For example, I know anecdotally that the difference in the seniors was so obvious that it became a topic of conversation in advisories at the junior and sophomore class levels this week. As a result, these students are already excited and preparing for their senior retreat even though it is a year or two away. The splendor of this for me is that it is one of those rare events when we as adults get to see how students can and do inspire one another, and indeed how they inspire us as well.
Next time you bump into some seniors, ask them about the retreat. If they are in a talkative mood, take a seat and enjoy what they have to say. More importantly, be sure to watch how their faces change as they recount some of the highlights.
Have a great weekend.
**Check out a video montage of scenes from the 9th Grade Retreat!**
**View photos from the 7th Grade Retreat!**