OCT. 11, 2016
Last weekend our students were on campus and planned a Fall Fun Day, reenacting a few of their favorite childhood activities from autumn and Halloween. We had just returned from an idyllic ten days in the field – five on the Appalachian Trail and five at our base camp at Cataloochee in the Smokies. Clear fall weather, the most stunning views in the Blue Ridge, true friends that are evolving into a solid and meaningful community, the Andromeda Galaxy wheeling overhead at night, bear cubs frolicking at a mountain cabin, solo hikes under the huge trees of the Caldwell Fork, and songs and stories in a hillside graveyard under the Milky Way. Life just doesn’t get better; this group knows that and made the most of our time away.
Around the campfire our last evening at Cataloochee, I overheard an intense conversation between Andrew Steed, a student, and Roger, our Director. Roger had led a discussion on ethics that day at an abandoned farmstead deep in the woods and with the fire flickering on their faces, they were now deep into Aristotelian virtue vs. deontology vs. utilitarianism. Yes, take a second to read that again. And this was on the heels of a conversation I had that morning over the campstove about genetic engineering and another some days before about Russia’s militarization in Syria. This fall – outside of the classroom – I have been part of conversations about the feminists of the 1970’s, the Balkan War, Woodstock, Angela Merkel’s refugee policy in Germany, the feasibility of an Islamic State in the Mideast, climate change, NASA’s Mars program, artificial intelligence, the electoral system, capitalism, slavery vs. state’s rights and the Civil War, Brexit, FDR and our entry into WWII, Black Lives Matter, NC’s HB 2, government regulation of Wall Street, and those are just the ones I recall now.
So yes, those six bear cubs were cute, and bobbing for apples is fun, and backpacking is a blast, and s’mores are delicious; but don’t think for a second that American teens are vacuous and self-centered and glued to their phones. Not these kids anyway. I am always, always pleased and proud to know that these are my colleagues and friends. They surprise me everyday with their curiosity and enthusiasm and empathy and, without any overstatement, I think the future is in good hands.
Natural Science, World History, Appalachian Craft
SEP. 26, 2016
This is my first semester at The Outdoor Academy. I’ll be honest, it’s something I’m self-conscious about at times. I look around me and I am surrounded by an incredible faculty with years of experience as educators and a diverse, rich history here at OA. Sometimes I have questions. “When can students start listening to music in the kitchen?” “What time does study hall end?”
But I have not for one minute since the beginning of semester 43 had a question about this being the right place for me. Every day I wake up, I go to breakfast, and I get to give thanks for being a part of this community. Believe me, it is a community to be grateful for. This is the type of community where we struggle to pick volunteers because there are so many hands up in the air and where students take initiative to plan activities in their free time so nobody is left out. It is the type of community where we celebrate each other’s accomplishments and regularly share our appreciation for each other.
Despite all of the things our students can boast about, Semester 43 is a community that (like the students) is currently in adolescence. Like anything that is worthwhile is not always easy and it is not always perfect. One evening, very recently, I was incredibly lucky to be a part of an honest and insightful self-evaluation by Semester 43. Our students sat around a room and shared not only the successes of their group but the areas in which we are currently falling short. People spoke about feeling afraid to speak up and acknowledged that some members of this family of ours aren’t being treated as they should be. Though there were certainly moments of praise, I sat there in awe of how willing these young people were to acknowledge their downfalls as a group and, more importantly, how genuinely concerned they were about the feelings of their peers.
We are drawn to the good. We so want to see all of the great things that the people around us are doing that we sometimes fail to see our shortcomings. But then sometimes we are lucky enough to be around people who want to be better—people who are committed not only to their own personal growth, but also to the growth of the people around them and the family that they are a part of.
As someone with more connection to the outside world than our students, I am all too familiar with reading the news and being taken by a sense of despair and doubt. But I am lucky. I have come to a place that gives me hope. As was recently mentioned by one of our students, Semester 43 is coming into the world and will have the power to do good. Having meetings like these gives me hope that our students will keep striving to be better, to make their communities better, and to make this world better.
Semester 43 Work Crew
Marisa Melnick, OA Resident
SEP. 15, 2016
This week, the students are writing their first English paper of the semester. The topic, appropriately, is on understanding the abstract concept of “home,” either through a definition essay or a personal narrative. There is a reason Katie assigns this topic, of course. For many of our students, the idea of “home” is often limited to their primary residence, their town, and their family. To now be faced with a supplementary idea of home can be disruptive to their internal narrative, and homesickness, doubt and reflection are natural byproducts of this transition.
One of the best parts of my job is having weekly check-ins with the students. These last few weeks, I’ve had many conversations with them about home. They share, almost baffled by their own emotions, how they are suddenly missing their siblings, their parents, their friends and their pets. They are surprised by the specificity of the things they miss: a particular dinner, going to the grocery store with their mom, arguing with their little sister, a certain tree in the backyard. These are the nuts and bolts of home, of belonging; these are the things taken for granted until suddenly they are gone. I always smile when I hear these stories, because I know when they return home, it will be with new eyes. Suddenly the luxury of being able to open the refrigerator whenever they want will be a magical experience, as will the comfort of their own bed now that they can compare it to sleeping on the ground for many nights in a row. I know that the return from this journey will be just as full of unexpected revelations as the journey itself.
But for now, we, as a semester, are creating a new permutation of “home.” We are learning how to start and close each day together, how to live and learn and work together and do what needs to be done. We are figuring out how to build an intentional community, how to communicate with each other honestly and resolve conflict, and how to be vulnerable and take the risk of opening up and sharing who we really are. Yesterday, during our Landscape, Skyscape Cornerstone Day, we found ourselves standing on the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment at Caesars Head State Park. On one side the mountains rose up in a ripple of peaks towards the Blue Ridge Parkway, while on the other side they tumbled down to the flat plains of South Carolina. Ted taught the students about their geological home here at OA, nestled on the edge of a tectonic upheaval. Racheal added a new layer of home to the picture, helping students understand our unique weather patterns that bring us such magnificent thunderstorms. And students are adding their own layers: impromptu Frisbee games on Cabin 7 field, laughing while doing dinner clean-up, singing while shoveling mulch onto trails, holding hands in a moment of silence to give thanks, and, yes, crying on each other’s shoulders when they are feeling homesick. As this new home forms in their minds and hearts, it will not diminish the home they have left behind. Rather, they will begin to learn the important life skill of being able to hold multiple permutations of home in their heart at the same time, giving thanks for all the variances and challenges each one offers. Home is safety. Home is acceptance. Home is belonging. Home is laughter. Home is…
Susan Tinsley Daily, Dean of Students
SEP. 9, 2016
On 27 August we opened our campus to the 43rd semester of The Outdoor Academy. Our 28 new students are still relative strangers—to each other and to our faculty—but we know, having experienced 43 Opening Days, we will soon come together as a community. We will soon feel as if we have known each other for a lifetime and we will build those bonds that will last a lifetime.
But there was a special feeling on this particular Opening Day. Even though we were welcoming 28 new students, their families, and five new faculty members—Renee Raffini, Madalyn Wofford, Caroline Lauth, Marisa Melnick, and Eric McIntyre—into our community, it felt more like a homecoming than an Opening Day. As we joined hands on Cabin 7 Field to sing Sweet Winds, our circle included some very familiar faces.
In addition to OA faculty and staff returning from last year—Katie, Lucas, Ted, Rodrigo, Racheal, Robbie, Mark, Ryan, Julie, and myself—our circle included returning friends from semesters past. Susan Daily, our new Dean of Students, has been with the OA since Semester 26 in many capacities, including Dean of Students. She returns to Eagle’s Nest having completed most of her work toward her second Master’s Degree and has moved back into her home on the northern boundary of campus with her husband Michael, son Noah, and daughter Wren.
Other exciting homecomings included our new Arts Director, Brian Quarrier, and our new Admissions Counselor, Reily Kennedy. Last year, Reily and Brian were members of our amazing Residential Faculty, positions that are typically one-year gigs. One year, we decided, was not enough for these exceptional educators, wilderness leaders, and role models, so we convinced them to stick around and take on new roles and responsibilities at the OA. In Reily’s case, this was an especially poignant homecoming. A proud alum of Semester 25, she is the first member of our permanent staff who has been both an OA student and an OA Resident.
Finally, we welcomed to our Opening Day circle two other OA alums. Micah Parsons, OA Semester 27, mastered her craft at American University before joining the Eagle’s Nest team this summer as our Marketing Coordinator. Joining our Arts Department is Madalyn Wofford, a graduate of OA Semester 20. Madalyn is a multi-talented artist and gifted teacher who will be teaching our Music & Dance arts elective this semester.
It speaks well of our school and our Foundation that so many of our alumni—students and faculty—are choosing to come home. More than that, however, it speaks volumes about the quality of OA alumni. These people, along with the OA faculty and staff they have now joined (or rejoined) as colleagues, are among the most caring and competent educators in the field…and that’s why they’re here.
Thomas Wolfe, local boy made good and one of my favorite writers, famously suggested: You Can’t Go Home Again. I must, respectfully, disagree.
Roger Herbert, Outdoor Academy Director
APR. 27, 2016
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JAN. 26, 2016
Semester 42 students began their time at The Outdoor Academy with a three-day trek that featured evening temperatures in the single digits. Just days after returning from their bone chilling backpacking trip, a big snowstorm left campus blanketed in white. Needless to say, it’s been an eventful start to the semester.
The four cornerstones of The Outdoor Academy program are: Environment, Intellect, Craft and Community. There’s nothing quite like adversity to showcase that each of these areas are relevant and necessary. Semester 42 students, while fresh to this experience, are already proving to be exemplars of these core values that weave into all that we do at The Outdoor Academy.
Ted, who has been teaching at The Outdoor Academy since it was founded, mentioned last week that this already feels like a very successful semester. His barometer, honed over 41 prior semesters, is student volunteerism, and this group has that quality in spades. As the winter weather approached, we stacked giant piles of wood for our wood stoves, we filled auxiliary water tanks in case the power went out rendering our electric pump useless, and we stockpiled our pantry. And each time one of these additional chores cropped up, hands went up to volunteer to help faster than the blink of an eye.
The beauty of working at a place like The Outdoor Academy is that you get to surround yourself with students who want to be at your school, in spite of–or perhaps more accurately because of–all that they give up by choosing to be part of this program. Students who come to The Outdoor Academy give up their phones, computers, Internet connection and canned music. They give up personal space and agree to live in a cabin with up to ten other people. They give up free reign over the refrigerator, in favor of family style meals. They give up candy. They give up late nights. And somehow, at the tender age of 15 or 16, they already know that what they will gain from giving up these luxuries is sweeter than the luxuries themselves.
This snowy weekend was a taste of all that is gained by coming to The Outdoor Academy. Students spent the weekend playing games in the snow and sipping tea around the wood stove. When they wanted music, they pulled out their guitars and sang some songs. They ate delicious homemade bread and thick chili family style in the Dining Hall. Most of all, they had space and time and opportunity in this slower, quieter life to start to truly get to know one another. The friendships that they will forge this semester will become the heartbeat of their experience here.
Roger, our Director, keeps reminding students that this experience is ephemeral. In a few short months, we’ll be doing cannonballs into the lake that is now iced over. And the bonds and memories will be deeper and dearer still, which is why on this cold January evening, I am grateful that we are just one week in with this fantastic group of people. The future of Semester 42 feels bright indeed.
Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students