by Jeannie Elliott, former Chair of Humanities, Summerfield Waldorf School
For the past two years Mike Bodkin and Bob Palmer of Rites of Passage have taken teenagers from Summerfield Waldorf High School in Santa Rosa, CA into the desert to experience a personal vision quest. The framework for these quests is the traditional Open Week at Summerfield, a week in the fall when students go off campus with their teachers to experience the world through physical and practical activity. We have built dwellings in Mexico, hiked the Lost Coast, bicycled to Santa Cruz, kayaked in Tomales Bay, sailed on San Francisco Bay, learned to build straw bale structures, created puppets for Santa Rosa's First Night, etc. Rites of Passage got involved because Bob is a Summerfield parent and had a personal vision that the Rites of Passage quest would complement Waldorf education.
When Bob first spoke to me, frankly, I had some misgivings. I could not imagine that many Summerfield students would want to spend three days and three nights alone without food in what I then perceived to be a hostile environment. I could not imagine myself taking responsibility for their physical and mental safety in such a setting and under such travail. I worried that the experience would be too akin to that of some drugs, and this was not what we wanted to encourage in our students. Bob, however, persisted in his gentle way, calling up every year to check in, making a presentation to our students one year, and gaining my trust over time.
Then, as will occur if one is open, in 1997 the time suddenly seemed right and I called Bob to see if we could plan a vision quest trip as one Open Week choice for the fall of 1998. We did. I met with Bob and Mike and heard their approach and plans for preparation. I watched the video they gave me of Stephen Foster and Meredith Little on a trip that included teens. Half way through the video I found myself weeping in recognition that something very important was possible for teenagers on such a vision quest. Now I had the confidence I needed to take the risk and be the Summerfield advisor on this Open Week trip.
In 1998 we could take only 12 of the 18 students who signed up to go to Death Valley with us. As first choice is given to seniors, we had 7 seniors, 2 juniors, 1 sophomore and 1 freshman: that is, students aged 15 to 18.
When we met in June to begin the process of preparation and severance, I was deeply struck to hear several of the students express a lack of time to be alone and to be still as their reason for wanting to go on a vision quest. "I just want to be alone, by myself, in solitude without any distractions." "I never have time to myself, just to be by myself." "I'm always busy, there are always demands on me, I never have time to stop and just be." We adults forget so easily that the stresses we feel are felt no less- and probably even more intensely – by the young adults in our midst.
By the time we all gathered on a September Saturday morning, we had each prepared ourselves both inwardly and outwardly for the adventure. We knew what to do in case of insect or rattlesnake bites, heat exhaustion, dehydration and exposure to the elements, disorientation and emergencies. We had a good idea of what "buddy system" meant in this context, and how the buddies would communicate with each other once a day without breaking the silence or solitude. The students had thought about their individual purposes and fears and wishes for themselves during the three-day solo.
The long drive from Santa Rosa to Death Valley is an important time. Tires leave no marks on paved roads, but conversations weave traces, and we began to see lines of attention emerge and shift subtly among and between us. The process of trusting had begun.
Over the next days the adventure unfolded like a scroll that was writing upon itself. We filled innumerable water jugs in intense heat at Stovepipe Wells, found base camp in the Funeral Mountains, and increased the level of inner preparation through further conversation and intense listening, hungrily seeking shade by day, huddling close in the cool of starbright nights. We were all struck by a sense of safety in the desert, for nature's lap, especially in these vast, barren mountains, is benevolent. It is not nature but humans we have learned to fear.
Students became buddies by noticing which direction drew them. They found their quest sites on the second day, and each brought back a stone to place in the medicine wheel which Bob and Mike had formed in rock: red, black, white and yellow for the four directions.
Then, on the third day, one by one, purified by sage smoke, each quester hoisted a pack and set off silently in the high wind of dawn to be alone at last.
While the questers were out, we adults held camp and kept inner contact with them through ceremony influenced by a range of cultural traditions, including European and Native American. My sense of saftey continued to grow as I recognized that all the parts of the process we were engaged in were filled with life. Again and again I felt that I had entered something like a flowing river into which I could step and be carried but not pushed. We were servants to something larger that I could trust.
When the students returned three days and three nights later, their reverence, gentleness with each other, joy in life, depth of individual experience, radiance, strength, community, open-heartedness left us adults moved to the very cores of our beings. There was no longer any question in any of our minds about the appropriateness of a vision quest for teenagers: quite the contrary, we knew this was right and good for those who chose it.
Last fall, we again took a group of Summerfield students on a vision quest, this time to the Inyo Mountains. There were 9 participants on the second trip. This year the inner theme for the group seemed to be, "I want to know myself, find out about myself, learn to love and/or forgive myself so I can be more direct and confident with others and have more to give." Again I sensed the living process of the Rites of Passage quest at work. Again I became more and more confident as we entered the physical and soul space of the undertaking. Again we adults were deeply moved by the journeys of the young; by their courage and clarity and depth.
I hope other schools and organizations who serve today's youth will take the opportunity to work with Rites of Passage to provide more teenagers with this invaluable opportunity to find stillness in solitude and a path to knowledge of themselves through immediate contact with the natural world. In my experience Rites of Passage provides a perfect balance of guidance and trust, form and freedom, of professionalism and personal engagement.