John Eldredge, in his book Wild at Heart, says ‘The way a man’s life unfolds nowadays tends to drive his heart into remote regions of the soul.’ The world we live in continues to surprise me. Our economy continues to grow rapidly and the young people of today seem to want more and more self gratification. There is a feeling that having the latest cell phone, laptop or technology is what will keep you happy. Young men and women are finding it more difficult to find themselves, to understand who they are and how they relate to the world. Peer pressure continues to place them under enormous strain.
More than ever, there is a sense that having more means more personal satisfaction. The world measures success by material possession. Adults are driven by their greed and are forced to work harder to produce more in less time. Eldredge says that corporate policies and procedures are designed with one aim: to harness a man to the plough and make him produce. As a result, parents dictate what careers their children should pursue when they complete their schooling, forgetting that most of them are unfulfilled and frustrated in their own work place.
Independent schools run the danger of becoming cocoons that pamper children, coercing them to do what is correct. We are sometimes afraid to allow our young men and women to make mistakes and, as a result, we stifle personal growth. Our schools are often comfortable places where we allow young men or women to do what they are good at. What we tend to forget is that in life we all make mistakes and it is our reaction to those mistakes that actually counts in the end.
Boys, ultimately, want to know whether they have what it takes to be a man. Until a man knows he is a man, he will forever be trying to prove he is one, while at the same time shrinking from anything that reveals he is not. Our young ladies face similar challenges. Oakhill School aims to challenge these comfort zones that we naturally bed down in. We aim to make our young men and women feel uncomfortable in a number of situations that will challenge them and ultimately help them understand themselves a little better.
At Oakhill, we have been implementing a series of interventions that will enable young men and women to understand who they are; to help them understand that the soul cannot be harnessed and dictated to. Eldredge says, ‘The soul longs for passion, for freedom, for life.’
We endeavour to start our students on a journey of self-discovery by exposing them to different experiential situations. This pivots around our Grade 10 Odyssey, which will happen in February/March of their Grade 10 year. Our young men and women will journey for approximately 400 kilometres, travelling on horseback, canoeing, cycling and hiking through some of the most rugged and picturesque terrain in the country. They eventually reach a physical destination, but realize that their emotional and spiritual journey has only just begun.
In his book The Wonder of Boys Michael Gurian says, ‘Boys need to compete and do combat, they need to feel tested in the physical and interpersonal world. Our job is to help them navigate – not squash – this need.’
Halfway through the Odyssey, participants spend 30 hours contemplating, in total isolation, what they have learnt so far. The aim of the trip is for every boy and girl to participate in a life-changing experience. We hope that this experience will go a long way to enabling young men and women to establish the kind of positive values, perspective and self- awareness that they will need to adopt and build on during their early adult life.
There are many benefits that emanate from this experience, including greater self-awareness, improved confidence, a deeper understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of others and a sincere appreciation of friends, family and daily comforts.
They realise that they can actually cope without their technology for a month. They also develop an appreciation for greater issues, satisfaction from stretching themselves, physically or otherwise. They become more open when dealing with and helping others, develop an admiration for nature and have first-hand experience in solving problems dealing with difficult team members and they develop leadership skills, which will stand them in good stead for years to come.
Once they have returned, there is a sense of independence about them. They realise that they are who they are because of others – ‘Ubuntu’ is understood without ever being defined. Every pupil takes his or her own lessons from this experience. Sometimes looking in the mirror is not pleasant, but it certainly gives you perspective.
Each boy and girl writes a letter to themself which they will open exactly one year after they have written it. The challenge is to see whether they have put into practice, any of the things they promised themselves. Sometimes they realise they have failed themselves in some of the goals and promises they set. Other times they realise how much further down the road they have actually travelled, and this in itself is affirming and builds self-esteem.
I have seen children grow into young adults during this time. They realise things about themselves that they never dreamed of. They realise that they can push themselves further than they ever imagined. They realise how insignificant certain issues actually are and they begin to understand what is really important to them. A student had this to say about his experience: ‘A few lessons learned: let tomorrow take care of itself; live and enjoy the moment; honesty is the key to freedom; and take time to reflect on the past.’
As a Deputy Head and Headmaster, I have realised how much education revolves around involving parents in the process of preparing their young men and women for life. Parents also need to learn to allow their youngsters to extend themselves, to test themselves and to allow them to see how far they can push themselves.
Our Grade 10 Odyssey is as much a learning experience for our parents as it is for our children. Roald Dahl says in The Minpins:
Little Billy’s mother was always telling him exactly what he was allowed to do and what he was not allowed to do. All the things he was allowed to do were boring. All the things he was not allowed to do were exciting. One of the things he was NEVER NEVER allowed to do, the most exciting of them all, was to go out through the garden gate all by himself and explore the world beyond.
Parents have to give their children the space to grow and develop, particularly during adolescence. Mothers find this ‘letting go’ extremely difficult because their natural instinct is to protect, to ensure that their children are safe from harm. Eldredge says, ‘If a mother will not allow her son to become dangerous, if she does not allow him to take time away, she will emasculate him.’
Conversations with parents are an important process in the Odyssey we will undertake at Oakhill. Allowing children to venture ‘through the garden gate all by himself and explore the world beyond’ is not always easy but we attempt to show all concerned that it is the best thing for the families and the children concerned. Paul Olsen says: ‘The mother-child relationship is usually a subtle interaction between letting go and grasping – and that is what makes this process and the understanding of it so infinitely complex.’
Ultimately the Odyssey is all about caring for the souls of young men and women about raising a generation that will begin to see the immense potential in themselves and the community around them. God willing, this journey they will undertake will leave the majority of them with genuine friends, with memories that will touch the heart and with experiences that will give their lives meaning and ultimately guide them into the future.
Headmaster at Oakhill School in Knysna