We left Saturday morning, all piling onto two big buses. It was raining, but that did not deter us. I have 60 first year students (three sections of 20), and they all live together on one floor of a residence hall. They were a sleepy group as they climbed on the bus, but an hour later, the bus was filled with chatter and song.
It was an overnight retreat at a lodge in the middle of the woods, in an area famous for cliffs, gorges, and waterfalls. We spent the afternoon doing a Ropes or Challenge Course. I love how the teamwork of the low ropes elements helps set a supportive atmosphere that will extend into the classroom as we do such things as peer review. I know that some faculty are hesitant to participate in a Ropes Course because it is so physical: yes, you have to touch students, sometimes holding hands, balancing on a small platform clinging to each other in what is basically a group hug, letting them pick you up and lift you through an opening in a rope spider web, or doing a trust fall into their arms. But I've done ropes courses with my students for years, and I am comfortable with the physical closeness. The high ropes elements fill me with adrenaline - I am afraid of heights - but I love the feeling when I actually do leap from a platform high up in the trees. I love how supportive the students are, cheering on each person who attempts a high ropes element.
After dinner (pasta and salad, of course), I split the students into small groups and sent them off for a nature walk. They disappeared in all directions, some climbing down the steep sides of the gorge and others taking manicured trails. When they all returned an hour and a half later, we gathered in the main room of the lodge to write about the experience. The room was perfectly quietly as they sat, most of them cross-legged on the floor, heads bent over their notebooks, and wrote furiously.
In the evening, we had a coffeehouse. Students read poetry and journal entries. They pulled out musical instruments: a viola, a clarinet, a trumpet, and any number of guitars. One young woman sang a Joni Mitchell song, and everyone joined in on the chorus. A bunch of students teamed up for a funny skit that included all kinds of jokes about our campus. Always we have students reading sappy poems about high school love - and angry activist poems. Always, someone plays Stairway to Heaven on the electric guitar. Every performance, no matter how lame, received wild applause from the other fifty-nine students in the room.
After the coffeehouse, we built a campfire outside the lodge, talking, singing, and roasting marshmellows. One student who grew up in another country had never tasted a S'More before, so we all watched his face while he ate his very first one. As the fire burned down, many of lingered near the coals to talk. Topics included politics, racism, religion, and marriage.
The full moon rose in the sky behind us as we talked, and as the light shone over the meadow, I looked around to see that I was surrounded by sleeping bodies: students who had gotten their sleeping bags and were curled up in various spots near the fire. Others had disappeared into the woods. A few slept in the lodge.
In the morning, we ate breakfast together, and then my unwashed, half-asleep students set to work cleaning the lodge, filling bags with trash, mopping out bathrooms, sweeping the main room, scrubbing pots in the kitchen. Despite the early hour, everyone seemed cheerful, happy that we had come.
"I slept in a field last night," announced a student from Brooklyn. "I still cannot believe that." He kept talking even as he was busy piling cans into the recycling bin. "I never knew before that the moon rises and sets. It traverses the sky. I had never seen that before. I don't notice the night sky where I live."
Travelling back to Snowstorm City, students slept and chatted quietly on the bus, many leaning against each other to get comfortable, a few asking me questions about a paper due tomorrow. In the parking lot of their residence hall, I waved goodbye to them and headed home.