The pale light that peeked through the dormant trees was quickly dissipating as we walked out the door into the bone-gnawing wet of late-February New Hampshire. The road was covered in graying slush from a week of snow and a day of rain. I clutched a ball of cooking string in my right-hand pocket as I told the man I had met a month before that I was penniless, collecting compost for chump change, but that I loved his daughter, so would he grant her hand in marriage? Two hours of walking and talking later, he gave me a hug and offered me a beer, and five months after that, he walked her down the aisle of a cathedral and placed her hands in mine.
The denizens of the Valley will not be having such conversations for many years, nor will they soon (most likely) be scaling distant mountain peaks or taking solemn vows or litigating cases in court or defending our native shores. But their journeys to greatness, like all things, have humble beginnings. It is in the dust bowl of autumn football games and the musty, dimly lit log-cabin classrooms that the seeds are planted for an adventurous journey lived fully alive.
A call, an itch, a pull – we have all felt it before; a hook stuck deep in our heart that says this is where we must be or there is where we must go. Some years ago now, enjoying a post-hike beverage in the shadow of Wyoming’s Tetons, I overheard a tourist ask an old-timer why she moved from Oklahoma, and in response, she simply waved her hand at the vista. To the casual observer, the easy answer was the view: of the mountains, the Snake River, the gently undulating glacial moraine. But the gesture meant much more. Deep down at the heart of her answer was the desire to be free and experience the unmitigated joy that follows.
We may not have wild rivers or bugling elk or grizzly bears waltzing through our Valley in Potomac, Maryland, but we come here for the same reason. At The Heights, boys are offered the freedom to fall again and again until they are ready to rise as men who will continue to sharpen their intellects and hone their moral lives until death.
Freedom is not something that we generally equate with school. When we think of school, many of us have an image of sitting in desks, heads propped on scrunched-up fists. The teacher stands in front of the classroom droning on about names and dates, the four basic operations of arithmetic, and other intangible things that seem to float on the board. Our eyes anxiously watch as the second hand of the clock makes its painstakingly slow revolutions, while the minute hand seems locked in time. The sheer misery of it is enough for us to measure school by weekends and vacations, which always seem so far away.
But in the Valley, we like to imagine something else: Gandalf coming up the path, pipe in hand, and rap-tapping upon our classroom door – as he does in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is read in fifth grade at The Heights – and inviting the class out for another adventure into the wild world that surrounds us.
To Explore, To Dream, To Discover
Adventure and wanderlust have driven human civilization forward since prehistoric times. An oppressed people, forced to live within strict borders and boundaries, is by nature a dispirited people. Students are not meant to be simply chained to a chair, closed up in a classroom, or secured to a screen. To flourish and maximize their potential, they need to tap into their innate desire, as the adage goes, to explore, to dream, to discover. And they need to come home dirty from time spent outdoors. Torn shirts and muddied pants are worth the price of boys being raised in an environment that prioritizes lifelong growth over SOL or NAEP test scores.
In the Valley we do not have many rules, but we do have guardrails. Too many of the former squashes creativity and limits growth while too few of the latter leads to lack of formation. If the goal is for our graduates to be like C. S. Lewis’s Aslan, dangerous but good, then we must not only be bold but also prudent – ready to push on the extra mile but also not too proud to ask for help when it is needed. Likewise, we must learn as much from our failures as we do from our achievements.
The founder of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, postulated that there is no cap on one’s education. In the Valley, we adhere to this philosophy wholeheartedly: rather than inserting the capstone, we are simply laying the cornerstone. And there is no moment when learning takes a pause, even on a field trip that may be construed as simply “fun” – such as a visit to a Christmas tree farm or a year-end camping trip. These types of trips, though not strictly academic, awaken a student’s mind through sheer thrills and communal hardship while generating empathy for literary and historical figures. Think of Bilbo and the dwarves escaping the wood elves in apple barrels, or of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark leading the Corps of Discovery across the untamed rivers of the great American West.
Learning should not be a chore but an adventure – and yes, that means that it may be difficult at times! An adventure is, after all, somehow lacking if everything goes smoothly. No one remembers the moments of trips when everything went swimmingly. Rather, we recall the times when we were faced with a challenge and overcame it; that is what makes a great story and an even better occasion to learn. It is in losses that we reevaluate and rebuild. Without taking risks, without adventure, we become stale and fail to properly grow.
Yet, if life can be boiled down to adventures, there are many aspects of Valley life that could easily be called into question: Why make the boys wear ties? Why “waste” a class on a football game? Why spend so much time ensuring that the homework is properly copied down in an assignment notebook? Why the emphasis on cursive or memorizing times tables or – you have got to be kidding me – another poem?! The answer to all of these questions and more lies in the formation of character and, more explicitly, in learning to care for and to love the little things. After all, without taking care of the little things, all adventures will go awry.
The Little Things
I joke sometimes that when the boys learn to date and label their notebook entries without a reminder, then my work is done. Such a small detail, yes, but the mastery of that detail will grow into a much greater achievement. In a point in The Way, St. Josemaría Escrivá says:
Everything in which we poor men have a part – even holiness – is a fabric of small trifles which, depending upon one’s intention, can form a magnificent tapestry of heroism or of degradation, of virtues or of sins. The epic legends always relate extraordinary adventures, but never fail to mix them with homely details about the hero. – May you always attach great importance to the little things. This is the way! (#826)
Those little things – a ding on a poetry recitation for missing a word, half off on a math problem for forgetting the dollar sign, buttoning the top button (“But you can’t even see the top button!”) – all point to a long-term vision of developing habits now that will allow the boys to flourish down the paths they will tread.
It is easy to think that little errors or mistakes will work themselves out naturally, that the going should not be tough for a Valley-age boy and he need not struggle until later years. But without the development of a strong foundation on good turf, our boys will be washed away in the torrent of post-modernity. This is why we emphasize discipline over punishment and habits over grades. Discipline is intended to foster growth as opposed to punishment, which is reactionary and often deemed “unfair.” Discipline and habits are harder to achieve than punishments and good grades, but the hard work put into them weaves a product of greater strength, bonds that are only unbound by negligence and apathy.
In his book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell explains how near-misses bolster our confidence, how loss can embolden us to improve, while constant victory blinds us to our weaknesses. A student who sits in a classroom, consistently receiving perfect scores on his tests with ease, is in some ways a weaker student than the boy who must struggle to get good grades. The first boy can coast and thus fails to hone important skills that will come in handy when he makes his way into a bigger pond. The second one, meanwhile, builds up the toughness and habits that will propel him forward.
Challenges are the calisthenics of our minds. They awaken our sleeping intellect, highlight our strengths, and reveal otherwise hidden talents; they cultivate self-knowledge and embolden those who persevere. Naturally, challenges will sometimes painfully expose our weaknesses, and therein lies their greatest value. Not only do we learn where we need to improve, but we also discover the importance of trust and reliance on others – trust in ourselves, trust in our peers, trust in God. Trust, which is the most basic and important building block of any successful relationship. For each of us, the realization will eventually come that “no man is an island entire of itself,” and no man can forge through life alone. In short, the challenges that we meet in adventure force us to be human.
Learning Through Adventure
Boys also need to move, and our three daily breaks meet this need without losing sight of the necessity for joy and creativity that derive from free play. Learning through adventure serves as an antidote to the vacillation between chaos and boredom that many boys perceive in the classroom. A boy’s mind is dulled by inactivity, while exploration and adventure help to engage the mind actively, allowing for education through osmosis.
Of course, regular school adventures are not enough – a student can learn all that he wants at school, but if his home life is not working in concert, we end up with a student being pulled in two directions and, thus, a broken boy. A life of adventure is just that – a full life pulling us ever upward. A student’s life does not begin at the tolling of the bell at 8:15 in the morning or end at 3:05 in the afternoon with a handshake, September to June. The parents are the primary force in raising a child, and without fathers and mothers acting as guides, the children will eagerly stray from the path in pursuit of easily attainable pleasures, just like the dwarves and Bilbo as they stumble through Mirkwood chasing ever-fading lights.
Bilbo could have lived vicariously through the stories told in pubs and through those of his Took ancestors, but did he really, truly live until he embarked on his epic adventure with the thirteen dwarves? And ever afterward, he longed to see the mountains again, to walk in the woods with the elves, to see the great eagles and their massive eyries. He experienced these things firsthand and his mind was awakened – he was shaped by those experiences. His life changed forever as a result of his adventures.
In his poem, “Caminante, no hay camino,” Antonio Machado urges us to walk the path we have been given, a path unique to each of us. The translation reads:
Wayfarer, your footprints are
The path – and nothing else.
Wayfarer, there’s no set path,
One makes the path as one walks.
As one walks the path is made,
And when looking back,
One sees the path
That won’t be stepped on again.
Wayfarer, there’s no set path,
Only wakes on the sea.
Adventures are a necessary part of forming the paths that we create, as they help to mold our understanding of the world and help us to discover the part that we must play in the grander narrative that surrounds us. But how does this relate to a lower school boy who is seemingly years away from figuring out what he wants to do? Borrowing from former headmaster Bob Jackson: these years are incredibly formative. It is here that the dreams of the future are built – the development of sturdy habits and virtues and a love of learning, from which each student will one day build his cathedral, dreams that will inevitably fall short when joined with ardent prayer.
Time spent in the Valley gives our boys the basic tools they need to “cast off the bowlines [and] sail away from the safe harbor,” to rise, unafraid of challenges, and become the young men of virtue that they are called to be, that our world needs them to be. To paraphrase St. Josemaría, why tie down a boy to flutter around like a barnyard hen when we can help him soar like an eagle?