Building a Home in Your Own Skin: A journey from rivers to peaks and back again

Alzar School | 27.08.13

“We shall not cease from exploration

and the end of all our exploring

will be to arrive where we started

and know the place for the first time.”

–       T.S. Eliot Four Quartets

At the Alzar School we bring students from around the country – and the world – for the opportunity to spend a semester pushing comfort zones, building bridges between curriculum, broadening their perspectives on the world, and inventing who they want to be as future leaders of their communities, and of their own lives. This growth process begins the moment each student departs his home turf – be it Cúrico, Chile or Cascade, Idaho – and becomes an essential piece of a new community, and starts homing in on finding a home in his own skin.

Authors from Homer to Tolstoy have been writing about the same idea that T.S. Eliot encapsulates above: to appreciate where we come from, we must uproot ourselves; to truly know ourselves, we must answer the call to adventure. 

Last week the Alzar School class of Fall 2013 launched from the banks of our own campus on a four-day orientation expedition. Floating down the North Fork of the Payette River, students and faculty built relationships through conversations, technical lessons, and simple appreciation of wilderness. Discussions spanning summer highlights to future career dreams were punctuated with a frequent “BAM!” shout (Beauty Appreciation Moment) – awestruck by another bald eagle soaring overhead.  I couldn’t help but wonder at the eagle’s perspective, looking down on our flotilla: a kind of social ballet-on-water as SUP boards, kayaks, and rafts mingled and the laughter of new friendships drifted downstream.

Soaking up the golden hour

Through observation and awe, students began to build a sense of place for their new home.  

As we transitioned from water to rocks, our community shouldered heavy packs and began ascending the mountain ridge back towards campus. Every step granted us a wider perspective, a broader “BAM” vista. I was consistently impressed with our new students’ ability to model positivity and encourage each other through grit and challenge, to appreciate the journey as much as the summit, and mostly to be fully present with each other.

Students learn by trial and error how to keep the mega mid upright all night long
Students learn by trial and error how to keep the mega mid upright all night long
Students reflecting on our first Leadership debrief
Students reflecting on our first Leadership debrief
Meals in small cook teams by golden light

Our penultimate day we reached the summit of Tripod peak around lunchtime and were granted a climactic view that would have delighted T.S. Eliot: from the firewatcher’s lookout tower we could see not only 360° – from Long Valley to Council, the whole spine of the Western Range – but we could spot campus, our new home, and nearly every “s” curve we had floated from put-in to take-out.

Enjoying the view from Tripod Lookout
Looking in (and reflecting out) on Tripod Lookout tower

After lunch, we read the T.S. Eliot quote above and began to discuss “sense of place” – What is it? Is it important to cultivate? How do we do so? Students set fire to the discussion, taking us from our first reading for English class (Barry Lopez’ “Rediscovery of North America”) to personal definitions of leadership to philosophical ruminations on what it takes to build a sustainable community. Ben noted that being out of our comfort zones on expedition was bringing us closer together. Estée hypothesized that by needing to rely on each other in the wilderness, we were creating a kind of self-reliant family. Catalina vocalized appreciation for the openness in new friendships. Students realized they were homesick not necessarily for the places they flew in from not a week prior, but for 102 acres of sagebrush and pine, for bunk beds in yurts and classes outdoors.

Discussing “place” with an epic view

This semester in English class, Alzar School students will be examining the value of “place” through close readings of authors like Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau and Jon Krakauer. They will build connections to prevalent themes through daily writing prompts completed in their individual “querencia” locations on campus. Through direct observation they will learn to read any experience as a “text” – be it a Walt Whitman poem, a conversation with a Chilean, or a new river – with a critical mind and an open perspective. Through reflective and analytical writing assignments such as their recent “I Come From” narratives,  students begin to understand that you can’t know yourself without knowing your roots;  you can’t measure growth without marking where you’ve started from; and you can’t lead a community until you are sufficient in yourself.

Gazing back towards home
Gazing back towards home

by Ellie Moore

English and Spanish Teacher