By Todd Hansen, Director of Programs and Experiences
Our school retreats are the heart of what we do at Youth Frontiers (YF), but for those who haven’t experienced one, they can be challenging to conceptualize. Individuals new to YF often draw from what they know: “So, it’s like a school assembly?” “A lecture?” “A concert?” “Camp?” While our retreats contain some similar elements, identifying an experience that closely depicts what we do – other than “a retreat” – has been tricky. Recently, I rediscovered one of my writings, and I realized that a fitting parallel to our retreats is, of all things, an intersection:
Location: Huron and Wabash, a seemingly unremarkable intersection in the Near North neighborhood of Chicago. An Episcopalian church, a self-park parking lot, an Italian food market and a high-end designer furniture store anchor the corners.
It is rush hour on a Monday morning, and the intersection is bustling with all modes of transportation: cars, delivery trucks, bikes, taxis, school buses, walkers, skateboards and runners.
Who is creating all of this activity? It seems like everyone. Americans, Germans, Russians, Taiwanese, Ecuadorians, Turks, French and Burmese. They are tourists, mothers, fathers, business people, service workers, athletes, dog walkers, artists, drifters and inventors. They are fair and dark-skinned, overweight and muscular, feminine and masculine, focused and distracted, smiling and frustrated, hurrying and wandering.
What is it that brings all these people to this intersection? It is a junction on the journey to where they want to go.
Then I see the magic of this remarkable intersection: the four-way stop.
Not a stoplight, where we all wait to be told when and where to go, but a four-way stop intersection. A place where there is just a thin cultural guideline to get us to pause – to pause and look at what is happening around us. To notice each other. To take other people’s needs into consideration. To make eye contact with a stranger, to wave someone on, to find our space and pace in the greater world. And when we’re at our best, this give-and-take becomes a beautiful dance. A chaotically efficient dance of desires, of direction, of diversity.
It is at these seemingly unremarkable urban intersections with four-way stops, in diverse environments throughout this American experiment, that we humans pause. We pause and we see others, acknowledge others, offer others passage. We form micro connections and build communal trust.
We humans, incrementally, intersection by intersection, learn how to dance together as we head off to where we want to go.
Yes, this is what we strive for on retreat. We invite a whole grade level, with all of its diversity and its history, into one space. We ask those students for one day to stop – to take a break from their classrooms, clubs and cliques. In that space, we give them the opportunity to identify where they are and to choose in what direction they want to go. We help them realize that they don’t all have to be best friends, but that they can make each others’ journeys easier by seeing each other and showing one another kindness and respect. Only after they pause in this way can they move forward together.
Thank you for pausing for a moment with me. I’ll see you our next intersection.