For the 48th consecutive year, Proctor Academy has kicked off the school year with a five day hiking and backpacking trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As is the theme of so much we do at Proctor, small groups work best as eight students and two faculty allow for relationships to develop that are simply not possible in a larger setting. Tech free, shower free, and with no shortage of challenges, Wilderness Orientation pushes even the most confident of new student outside his or her comfort zone.
Thursday evening I hit the trail to drop in on a Wilderness Orientation group. It was getting dark, but I knew where the group had camped along the Pond Brook Trail in the Sandwich Wilderness. I knew the swimming holes, knew the rerouted section, knew the waterfalls. I jogged up through a tree farm a little after 6:30 pm. The sun had dropped down behind the Sandwich Range, and where the Guinea Pond trail angled left, I hooked a right on the Bennett Street trail to run along Pond Brook in the softening light. The dog stitched back and forth through the pines, and after a mile or two I caught the sound of laughter against the brook. It was Patty Pond and Lori Patriacca’s ‘01 group.
Today started with a teary goodbye for my daughter’s first day of kindergarten and ended with a hug and pride-filled smile of a little five year old who knew she had encountered a really hard thing, and conquered it. As our new students said goodbye to parents yesterday afternoon and embarked on Wilderness Orientation (a five-day, tech free, small group hiking and camping adventure in the White Mountains), there were plenty of looks of uncertainty on the faces of both parents and students; looks not too dissimilar from the tear stained gaze my five year old had on her face this morning. Entrusting your child to a school, especially a boarding school whose first responsibility with your most precious possession is a five day camping trip, is an incredibly hard thing. And our message to all those new parents at home right now is we are proud of you!
Day three of the Wilderness Orientation and pre-season sports camps and I can’t help but reflect on an article read earlier this morning in the New York Times: It’s 10P.M. Do You Know What Apps Your Children Are Using?For our students in the Pemi Wilderness on their Wilderness Orientation the question is easy to answer. Their App is an MSR stove, a fire, a chicken noodle Cup of Soup. Their connection is a connection of shared experiences standing under a rain fly waiting out a rain squall, sharing stories around a hot meal, collectively whooping when the sun peeks out. Theirs is a personal connection, the best kind of connection, the connections that cannot be replicated on line.
Prospective students and their families may be asking themselves why, after 45 years, does Proctor still conduct a Wilderness Orientation for every incoming student. The complexities of the operation are significant, as are the human and physical resources necessary to bring roughly 120 students and 35-40 faculty members into the White Mountains for five days and nights of hiking, backpacking, and camping. There must be a safer, easier, less stressful way to introduce students to a new school community, right?
The mountains already seem distant. The bottomless swimming hole on the Cold River, the wind and view on the ridge leading up to Sandwich Dome, the rolling thunder on Sunday morning near Pond Brook – it all fades after the first few days of the campus schedule. Classes, assemblies, sports, the new Dining Commons, the spectacular weather, dorm meetings, advisory meetings – this is the new rhythm.
New Proctor families gathered on campus Tuesday before Wilderness Orientation groups departed for five days of hiking and camping in the White Mountains. Proctor’s deep commitment to beginning the year in this fashion may make some families uncomfortable as they watch their teenagers step into the unknown carrying a 30+ pound pack, a sleeping bag, and tarp to sleep under, but we know Wilderness Orientation is the best possible way to start at a new school.
The start to the school year at Proctor builds slowly for weeks. Faculty trickle back to campus during the early weeks of August as syllabi are prepared, advisor letters are written, and dorms are prepared for students. Meetings happen, registration day schedules are finalized, WOFR training happens, and then BOOM, students arrive and we are off and running!