Joe Coleman, Henry Heil, and I returned late last week from five great days in Colorado with this year’s Prefect Board. It was undoubtedly the most meaningful stretch of non-academic time that I have ever spent with a group of student leaders. In the morning the boys participated in outdoor activities like hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking. In the afternoon and evening, we gathered as a group to discuss leadership, the honor system, dorm management, and what we can do together to make Woodberry Forest an even better place for boys to go to school.
Our base of operations was The Nature Place in Florissant, Colorado, about an hour southwest of Colorado Springs. The setting is magnificent, with a clear view of Pike’s Peak on the distant horizon. Boys love food and good food even more, and the cooks at the Nature Place always delivered. We all benefited from the splendor and remoteness of the Nature Place, and it was great fun to watch the boys deepen friendships and build more durable trust without the electronic distractions of cell phones and video games, all of which they’d surrendered on our first night together.
Most of all, I enjoyed the opportunity to hear from the prefects about life at Woodberry. As an alumnus who feels exactly the same way, I was not at all surprised to hear that the ultimate meaning of the school hinges on relationships. Time and again I heard about teachers and advisers who’d shaped their lives, friendships they’d developed that they know will last a lifetime, and a sustained sense of purpose that comes from being part of a community that is much bigger than we will ever be.
I shared that I wasn’t aware of a great year in the history of the school that did not include a great Prefect Board and an excellent senior class. The boys were quick to express an eagerness to make a difference as leaders, understanding that they occupy the front lines as protectors of the honor system, supporters of the new boys making their way into the community, and defenders of our commitment that every boy at Woodberry is known, challenged, and loved.
We have great faith in their capacity to lead and their eagerness to make this an excellent year in the life of Woodberry Forest. Through challenging (and sometimes hilarious!) role play exercises, a wide-ranging discussion of boarding school life in the movie “School Ties,” a full-length mock trial, and late-night indoor soccer games, this year’s Prefect Board came together as one in the mountains of Colorado.
In Elizabeth Norfleet’s Woodberry Forest: A Venture in Faith, the author notes that the school’s founder, Captain Robert Stringfellow Walker, possessed the natural gift of “encouraging boys not to be afraid.” Those of us who have served as prefects know that the responsibility comes with times of fear and trepidation. All old boys and alumni know that life at Woodberry can be uncomfortable and that we all learn to deal with difficulty and disappointment.
Learning to manage fear and lean into discomfort is a life-long challenge. For me personally, it was stepping into the boat on our last day and setting off down the Arkansas River toward Royal Gorge for a wicked stint of whitewater rafting. Even in the midst of near panic as we traversed level-five rapids, I couldn’t help but take in the grandeur of the setting and the smallness of our existence. I learned all over again the joy that can come from embracing a great challenge and embarking on a new adventure. I’m grateful to the boys for keeping me in the boat, for the alumni support that makes the sojourn to Colorado possible, and to Joe, Henry, and Dennis Campbell for putting together such a meaningful program to help the prefects grow as leaders and servants charged with sustaining the Honor System and supporting the boys under our care.