It is hard to believe that we are in our final days of Semester 48. Exams, final projects, and honors presentations are in the books, and we are now in the midst of what we call Transition Week. Final work crews have spent the past couple of mornings cleaning up campus, and students have participated in a variety of transition-related workshops. This evening, they will head into our campus woods to reflect on these past four months over a two-night solo experience. Students are putting the final touches on beautiful handmade projects ahead of Friday evening’s final dinner and Giving Night celebration. As is always the case at The Outdoor Academy, our days have been jam-packed, but faculty spent much of the semester planning a special surprise to kick off Transition Week: Spring Banquet.
The concept was simple: students would spend the day creating everything—and I mean everything—by hand and from scratch to put on a celebratory banquet that evening. The food, the decorations, and even the tables would be the product of a hard day’s work. The execution of such a feat as putting on a dinner for forty people after starting at square one was much more challenging, but students dove into that challenge with vigor after hearing about the plans at breakfast.
As I walked around Nature Hill and the New Lodge observing students and faculty hard at work and jumping in to help how I could, I simply couldn’t contain the glee and giddiness I felt at seeing our experiment take shape. Students were cleaning out sections of bamboo for cups and hand-carving forks and chopsticks with knives that they had made in Crafts class earlier in the semester. They used hand planes to smooth large oak planks that would soon be assembled into tables. Chickens sizzled as they roasted on spits over long beds of hardwood fires built with wood that students had split and stacked on previous work crews. Bread dough rose in the sun while students boiled down fresh strawberries for jam and shook mason jars vigorously to make butter. Another group made fresh pasta and pesto from scratch with the founder of OA and a faculty spouse. Students explored campus, picking flowers for table decorations and learning about the wild edibles they collected for salads and brewing tea. A group sat humming and enjoying the sunshine while making ice cream and hollowing out oranges that would serve as the baking vessels for brownies. Everywhere I looked, cook fires sprung up as more dishes started to take shape, and the air was thick with wonderful aromas, songs, and laughter.
After about ten hours of work, interrupted only by a quick pause for lunchtime burritos delivered by Rick, we circled up around a ring of seven new low tables, heard from each group about the items they had produced, gave thanks, and sat down in the grass to dig in.
The. Food. Was. Amazing.
I have eaten in Michelin-starred restaurants, I’ve watched every season of Top Chef, and I like to think of myself as fairly handy around a grill or in the kitchen. For my money, though, this was a once-in-a-lifetime meal. Hard work makes everything taste better, and the hours and effort that went into this meal were astonishing. Food experienced amidst beauty tastes better, and there could not have been a more perfect setting than a grassy field under blue skies on a warm spring evening. Food cooked and shared with those you love tastes better, and at the end of a semester, you’d be hard-pressed to find an assemblage of young people who appreciate each other more than a group of OA students.
For me, however, the true beauty of the Spring Banquet was how much the event encapsulated so many of the underlying principles that we hold dear as a school. We lived simply by assembling modest ingredients into tasty dishes. We were self-reliant by producing virtually everything we needed on our own, right down to the utensils with which we ate. We showed gratitude by thanking one another profusely for each other’s part in making the meal come together. It took an incredible amount of work ethic collectively to pull off such a feast from scratch. We crafted each piece of the banquet by approaching each task with intention, deliberateness, and precision. We appreciated our environment by immersing ourselves in its beauty and enjoying its bounty. Despite classes being over, students were still curious and learning still took place as teachers helped facilitate the experience. More than anything, Spring Banquet was a celebration of our community as we came together under blue skies to enjoy each other’s company.
Though students’ Cold Mountain papers and math tests have been behind them for a few days, learning is still happening at The Outdoor Academy. The purpose of OA isn’t simply to take the same old classes in a different place. Rather, we ask students to expand their conception of what school can be, and Semester 48 has bought in to the idea that their classrooms, lessons, and assessments can take many forms. Spring Banquet was very much a final exam, and students passed in the most delicious of fashions.
By Glenn DeLaney