In early September, Cynthia and I began the year as we always have with the Dawn Climb. With all 117 new students, our student leaders, and several members of our faculty, we ascended Mt. Cardigan to see the sunrise and mark the beginning of the Cardigan journey for the new boys.
I awoke that morning at 3:30 a.m. to prepare and, while letting the dog out, I could feel both the chill of the morning and an unmistakable wind from the southeast. Any good New Englander knows that wind from that direction almost always portends foul weather. I knew that the summit would be windy, cold, and probably socked in; however, we don’t postpone the Dawn Climb until conditions are perfect—we work with what we have and persevere. I closed the door and packed my backpack, adding a warmer hat and my down jacket.
Cynthia and I arrived at the summit by 5:30 a.m., ready to greet the boys when they arrived. Visibility was cairn to cairn and wind at the top was punishing. Nevertheless, by 6:00 a.m. boys began to emerge out of the darkness, in trickles and then waves. These young men, full of latent and sometimes as yet, untapped resources, joined this journey called Cardigan.
When all the boys had gathered at the summit, my message to them was brief, as I had to compete with the howling wind to be heard. I recall referencing one of my favorite lines from the Cardigan hymn, “through storm or weather fair.” I also referenced this year’s theme, “Respect the Climb.” This theme, like those that are identified each year, serves to rally and focus the community around a collective thought that moves us forward. Literally and figuratively, one doesn’t need to reach far to comprehend the meaning.
The sun made a brief appearance—first a shimmering light, then in the form of a dull orange ball—then it was gone, obscured by clouds and fog. It was time to head down before hypothermia (and hunger!) set in.
As we were descending, Cynthia and I came across PEAKS Department Chair Jarrod Caprow, leading one last boy slowly toward the summit. The boy was a new sixth grader who—I now know—has spent little of his young life outside of a city. We decided to join this Cougar to offer our encouragement. As dawn arrived, it was anything but comforting, but this boy kept putting one foot in front of the other, as he navigated the fearful elements of the treeless summit. When he touched the fire tower at the mountain's peak and stood on the survey marker embedded in the granite dome, we celebrated his accomplishment (he might have called it his punishment…) and acknowledged his hard work. Before long, however, we began to hasten our way down, trying to beat the rain, which the wind was pushing our way.
Cynthia and Mr. Caprow went ahead to join the others at the bottom, while I escorted this young man, step by tentative step, back towards the bottom, nudging him along when he stopped to notice a squirrel or point out to me that only some of the raindrops seemed to be finding their way through the leafy canopy above. Focused on his present, oblivious to anything but his individual footfalls, he—and I—finally made it to the nearly vacated parking lot and back to campus, where there awaited a hot breakfast and a busy schedule. His Cardigan journey was underway.
I often say that I don’t think there has ever been a more important time to be educating middle school boys than right now. Of course, I am keenly aware that the same could have been said twenty-five and fifty years ago as well. In fact, nearly seventy-five years ago, when Hap Hinman and the founders of this school rolled up their sleeves to start this unique community, they weren’t doing it for self-aggrandizement. There was a need--and there still is--to help our boys grow into men, not to shelter them from the elements that surround them but to give them the tools—the metaphorical gear—to help them navigate their journeys. Membership in this brotherhood has its privileges—most notably that the boys are surrounded by adults who are committed to this calling and by lots of other boys who are making their way too. It’s easier to do hard work when you’re part of a team, each member fulfilling a role for the selfish pursuit of personal goals and aspirations but with the end result of the collective advancement of the community.
What a wonderful gift this boy provided me that day—an accidental but clear example of our mission and our theme. This boy literally respected the climb that day. Negotiating his fears and discomfort, he trusted the community and the mission of the school—surrendering himself to his growth and development—step by step—through storm or weather fair.
By Christopher D. Day P’12,’13
Head of School
This letter originally appeared in the Winter 2020 edition of the Cardigan Chronicle