Individual learning is a centerpiece of Randolph’s educational philosophy. Here we believe that self-knowledge is essential to a meaningful life, and we work hard to know children as individuals and support their growth and development into the young men and women they were meant to be. This work is fundamentally counter-cultural, as children today grow up in a world that shouts out with certitude what they should look like, how they should behave to be accepted into the cool group, and what they should do to cater to our media-driven world.
Bereft of a healthy interior life, any one of us is on shaky ground. This is particularly so in the lives of children, as they navigate the uncertain shoals of childhood and adolescence. Growing up, they bounce back and forth between competing friend groups and adult expectations that might or might not speak to who they are and who they want to be. Along with churches and synagogues, the best schools and the best teachers and coaches push back against outside pressure by getting to know children for who they are and challenging them to reach beyond where they thought they might be able to go.
But even the best schools can become a grooved routine for all of us, and we rarely learn much of anything substantive about ourselves by doing what we’ve always done. That’s what was so refreshing about hosting Jennifer Pharr Davis on campus earlier this week. She’s a world record-breaking hiker who in 2011 completed the 2,181 mile Appalachian Trail in 46 days, an average of an incredible 47 miles per day. On her journey she battled debilitating shin splints that forced her to climb down hills backwards in order to alleviate the pain and a scary case of hypothermia. Jennifer’s story is extraordinary, and she connected with children in every division during her visit here at Randolph.
Jennifer’s a world class athlete. She is brave and determined. She is persistent, prepared, and creative. The record speaks for itself. But what impressed me most about Jennifer Pharr Davis is that she is a learner. The lessons she imparted to her audiences are fundamental to Randolph’s mission and to any life that’s well-lived. I’m not a hiker (and definitely not a camper!), but I should not have been surprised at how important community is to those who walk the Trail. Without the accoutrements of modern life and the distractions that trivialize many of our interactions with others, hikers like Jennifer come to know and support each other much more fully and completely during their interaction on the Trail.
She shared that she had to walk all the way from Georgia to Vermont on her first Appalachian Trail journey to be at peace with the fact that she could not control the weather, the insects, or the terrain. Despite her hopes and expectations, the Trail would never get “easy.” We’re prone to the same inclination to seek out what’s easy and fun, but her journey became richer when she concluded it would never get easy and wouldn’t be “fun.” Through the sleet and snow and howling winds and pelting rain and in the face of all that she understood she could not control, she came to realize that she could control her attitude. And, at the end of her journey, she concluded that “I think this might be better than fun.”
She went weeks without a mirror, but came to appreciate “how beautiful I felt on the Trail.” It took her quest to traverse the Appalachian Trail to separate her from the superficial expectations of others. She’d walk for miles without seeing another hiker, soaking up the splendor of nature and long stretches of unbroken solitude. It was in the wild, for the first time in her life, that she could look within and with confidence proclaim, “I knew who I was.” She told the Upper School students, “I knew who I was because of what I could do, not because of what others thought I should be.”
For Jennifer Pharr Davis, this was a profound moment of self-realization. We don’t have those every day, and few of us will embrace the challenge to walk even a portion of the Appalachian Trail. But we’re nonetheless called upon to give time and energy to look within and learn more fully who we are and be clear about how we know. That’s a heady hope for each of us, and I trust that Randolph will always be a sanctuary for that kind of education in an often tawdry and teeming world that yearns to shape us more than it frees us to shape ourselves in service to others.