It was about an hour before breakfast on the Middle School Overnight, and I was finding my way to the Dining Hall so as to be sure to be able to help the students get there easily later on that morning (we had arrived well after sunset, and had walked some distance to the cabins). As I regained my bearings and approached the building, I was astounded to see a big, beautiful open-air amphitheatre with a large campfire pit not 20 feet from the path we had negotiated the previous night under a starry sky and without quite enough flashlights. You miss a lot when you focus only on your destination.

After breakfast, the counselors, Corey and Cat, met us in the front lawn near the swing set, and I joined the 8th graders as they headed off with Corey. Various name games helped Corey get to know us, and he also learned how multicultural we are during an activity in which he turned the field where we were meeting into a map of the United States and asked people to go stand where they were from, where something happened to them that yielded an interesting story, and so on. As a clump of students headed for the wildflowers lining the field, Corey yelled “Where are you going?” and the responses came back: “South Korea.” “Japan.” “Mexico.”

Later on, the 8th graders were given the challenge of crossing a part of the field without touching the ground, using paper plates to stand on. If they stopped touching a plate, even for a split second, Corey would take it away, and they were to begin with one less plate than there were students. While Corey told me how impressed he was with how well the girls were working together – coming from the west coast, his image of boarding schools was that they were mostly for troubled children – the students huddled together and worked out a plan. Quickly, they were placing plates increasingly far away from the edge, walking down the growing line of plates and being careful to set their feet on them before letting go and standing upright. Once all the plates were down, each with one student standing on top, the remaining student began working her way down the line to the front plate. The student who was now at the rear of the line began working her own way down, picking up her plate as she picked up her feet. The plate was passed ahead until it reached the front of the line, the extra student grabbed it and put her feet down on it, and another toehold was established. In this way, with much laughter, squawks and hugs, the 8th graders accomplished their goal in an amazingly quick time, with a maximum of teamwork and a minimum of frustration (and only two plates taken away, both losses being easily absorbed).

That afternoon, we teachers switched groups, and as several 7th graders longingly watched the 8th graders head for the high ropes course with Erica and Laura (“You’ll get to do this next year!” I reminded them), we walked into the woods toward a series of as-yet unknown challenges. I joined up with Cat, and inquired about the morning. I knew about the chocolate river challenge from talking to the 7th graders at my lunch table – the same activity the 8th graders had done but where the paper plates were called marshmallows and the field the chocolate river in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The students had told me it was hard at first, but once they realized they could line up by height, it became easy. Cat’s perspective was that it took them a while, but that they did a great job of working through their frustration, and that (contrary to her expectations for middle school girls) they did an amazing job of taking care of each other through the process. No one, she said, was being excluded, and I told her that was wonderful to hear – it was my impression, too, but you always like to get outside confirmation.

Later on that afternoon, the group found themselves facing a low ropes element wherein they had to work in teams of three (each girl supported by two spotters, one on each side) to swing from a platform to a vertical 2×6 board, then walk across a series of cables strung from tree to tree with different configurations of ropes hanging tantalizingly just out of reach, make their way across two ropes crossed diagonally between trees, and finally swing back to the platform. That first swing required a literal leap of faith, as they had to not only jump off the platform but also swing up to the board, whose hard, six-inch surface loomed large in their minds. The first 7th grader to go took a few tries as she worked up how best to gain sufficient height to achieve and then establish her footing; her face was instantly transformed, and from that point on she took the lead, trusting that if she lunged for the blue rope about a foot away, she would be able to grab it and keep her balance, turning and passing on everything she was learning to the students following her, encouraging them, her muscles flexing as they pulled her along. The final challenge of the day, getting through a rope “spider web” without using any of the holes more than once, presented little challenge to them as they agreed on a solution almost instantly, sending six students through the lower six holes and then regrouping to quickly pass the other three (head up and feet first) through the three largest holes at about shoulder height.

Thinking back to that moonlit walk through the woods as we arrived, I realize now that the seeds of the success of the weekend were right there for anyone to see. Though many people might have taken slow, halting steps, hesitating to move forward in the dim light, our group stepped quickly and confidently, trusting each other, showing a courage all the more moving for its simplicity. Trust, courage, support, togetherness – a wonderful place to start the year, for as social development is enhanced, academic, athletic, and aesthetic development are also strengthened.