A Teacher Finds Courage on High School Retreats

By Ryan Vermette, High School Math Teacher

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I have taught high school math at Boston Prep for the past three years, and each fall, during the first week of school, I have attended a house retreat with my advisees and the rest of the Sinceritas house. At Boston Prep, houses are small communities within our high school community – a group of students and teachers who stay together for four years, pushing each other, supporting each other, and celebrating each other’s successes. At the beginning of each school year, houses travel offsite together for intensive retreats, designed to provide opportunities for students and teachers to build relationships with one another. Many of these opportunities, such as high-ropes courses, hiking, and personal reflection, push members of our community outside of their comfort zones, testing their courage both physically and emotionally. Retreats are designed to challenge students and help them build the foundation for a strong connection with their houses, but they also provide an opportunity for teachers to lead by example and challenges themselves. As a community, we strive to ask the same things of ourselves, as adults, that we ask from our students, and this expectation is no different for house retreats.

With that said, for the first three years I attended house retreats, I did not participate in many of the activities at any of the sites. My house spent two of my first three retreats at ropes courses, and I did not complete any of the elements made available to my house either year. I wanted to model courage for the students in my house and challenge myself appropriately, but I was fearful that the ropes courses would be too difficult for me because of an injury I suffered in college. When I was 20 years old, I was hit by a car while I was crossing the street, and as a result of the accident, I broke my right leg, broke two vertebrae in my neck, and suffered a spinal cord injury. I was initially paralyzed after the accident, but over a span of several years, I regained a significant amount of the mobility I lost. I now live my life independently of any assistive devices, but I am physically much weaker than I was prior to my accident.

Due to my spinal cord injury, I have been forced to think more critically about the accessibility of certain activities for me, and I have grown to be wary of extending myself beyond my physical limitations. The ropes courses my house visited always seemed beyond my physical ability, and for the first three years I attended the retreats, I did not even consider attempting them. As the current school year began and my house’s retreat approached, I anticipated that I would, once again, attend the retreat but opt out of participating in the ropes course.

On the day of the retreat, as students and teachers in my house were putting on their safety harnesses, a ninth grade student, Johnnyana, noticed that I wasn’t wearing a harness and asked if I planned to participate. I briefly explained to her that I don’t usually partake in physically strenuous tasks like traversing the ropes course because of the injury I sustained in college, and after patiently listening, she challenged me to reconsider my decision. Over the last six-and-a-half years, I have had hundreds of conversations about my accident, and occasionally, like Johnnyana did in this instance, people have challenged me in ways that intersect with my accident. The story of my accident is a very personal one to me and something about which I can quickly become defensive, but for whatever reason, I felt affirmed by Johnnyana in her challenge of me. I knew she wouldn’t think differently of me if I didn’t participate but that, in the case that I did, she would be there cheering me on and supporting me.

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Over the next few hours, I completed two of the ropes courses at my house’s retreat, and although I was nervous for most of it, Johnnyana was there the whole time working with me and encouraging me. The experience left me feeling triumphant for attempting and successfully completing the ropes course for the first time since I started working at Boston Prep, but even more significantly, the experience left me feeling overwhelmed with gratitude. I felt grateful that Johnnyana took the courage to challenge me to participate, and I felt grateful that she did so with compassion and patience. I felt grateful to be part of a community that messages the importance of courage and compassion and that recognizes members of the community who demonstrate these virtues, and I felt grateful for being a part of a community that works so intentionally to create opportunities for students and teachers to experience opportunities like the retreat. My experience this year at the retreat is just one of many reasons the Boston Prep community feels like family to me, and I feel so grateful my career as a teacher has led me here.