The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

Coming of Age

I sent my boy to The Island School and he has been transformed into a man. This transformation is holistic — my son holds me with stronger arms, listens and shares his thoughts with empathy, is full of a new confidence that comes from being out in the world, working to make difference - thank you!
— Island School parent

This statement has been expressed in different ways, hundreds of times, as parents arrive towards the end of The Island School semester journey and meet their children. It is clear now into our second decade that one of the reasons for our success is that we have become a place where young leaders are able to come of age. Tragically our modern culture has lost this pre-industrial ritual where young adults usually at the time of puberty are ceremonially welcomed into the adult world. A survey of aboriginal coming of age rituals reveals some common threads that include physical and emotional hardship, separation and time for reflection.

Without knowing, we were creating this journey into adulthood right here at Cape Eleuthera. I remember well that first semester. The phone, a giant brick cell of the time, the only link to the outside world, was used by students to call home once a week. I was not meaning to eavesdrop and yet could not help but hear the sobs coming from these young people who were emotionally and physically stressed, far away from home now living in close quarters with strangers. I worried that we were pushing too hard. We knew that learning is accelerated when you are outside your comfort zone and yet we were clearly stretching into the freak out zone for the majority of the students. It sounds contradictory and it is also intuitive - why would a school focus on making students uncomfortable? From our own experience we can remember the times when we were transformed, when we grew up — these were not the easy times.

I often joke that we are in the business of torturing young people and that is obviously an exaggeration. We are in the business of helping young people to grow up and take responsibility for themselves and others and this requires a lot of real, hard work. As I have mentioned one of the first challenges is being far away from home, landing on a small remote underdeveloped island literally located on the edge of the world, jumping in a van and passing through the settlements, seeing strangers smiling and waving from the road and from their fields. Chickens and goats are dodging out of the path and deep, dark green, impenetrable coppice is everywhere. Bags are flung down onto bunk beds and you realize that you will be sleeping with strangers as many as 12 in the same room. The social challenges are hard at first, learning how to share your feelings about being homesick, learning that Jake will only stop snoring if you roll him to his left side, learning how to fill the water jug when it is empty, how to take a navy shower and only flush when needed, learning how to take care of a shared space, a shared campus. Students can reflect at the end of the journey that they have made the best friends in their life because they have endured together and have become brothers.

I once came upon a student who was sitting by the sea shaking because he was so upset. We had just finished the first academic week, and I was guessing that he had struggled with the recent exam in the ecology course designed to test student's ability to reason, to use information and apply facts to a novel situation. I remember well Jose saying that the teacher never taught anything about zebra mussels in the Great Lakes. Jose had been an A student. He had mastered the art of taking good notes, reading carefully and regurgitating information on a test. Jose had little practice in reasoning; when confronted with a novel situation, he was not well practiced at applying and transferring the facts from other case studies. Jose got his first D on that test and it was frightening. Trying to understand Derek Walcott's epic poem, Omeros, is also frightening. Learning how to be an active participant in all course work modeled after a seminar style of learning and sharing was for most scary and new.

Working with a team of students and faculty to answer a question, to solve a real problem is one of the core elements of the intellectual journey. Students like Jose are again understandably freaked out when they learn that the teachers do not know the answers. I remember when we were working on the first aquaculture project looking at how we might grow fish using a locally available protein source. The students set up their tanks with controls and it was time to measure the juvenile yellow tail snapper. We had access to a strong anesthetic that would help slow the fish down for weight and fork length measurements. The question was asked of the research advisor, “how much anesthetic should we put in the bucket” and the advisor answered that nobody had ever done this before and passed along the caution as she walked away, “if you put too much anesthetic in the fish will die and if you put too little in they will flip off the scale and get injured and probably die.”

I have never run more than a mile. There is no way I can run a half marathon. I have never learned to swim. How can I learn to SCUBA dive? How can you expect me to swim four miles in the open ocean at the end of the semester?

These young people are also stretched beyond their perceived physical limits. Students gain tremendous confidence as they bust through barriers that at one time seemed insurmountable. It is a great moment when a student breaks through the surface of the ocean with sand that has been gathered up from 30' below on a single breath of air and shouts, “I never thought I could do that”. Whether freediving or running that final half-marathon without stopping or just learning how to be away from mom, these are the moments where the wall is behind them and their confidence is building and they are hungry for the next challenge. By the end of the semester when the students present their research findings to the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, you can see they are no longer children in school. They have become confident young leaders who know that they can make a difference as problem solvers and good citizens.

How do students digest all this success and change? How do they have time to reflect on this coming of age journey where they leave their home far behind? There is no access to internet and no cell phone in pocket and only new people to get to know and a new kind of school asking them to roll up their sleeves and go to work, asking them to learn how to be responsible adults. The reflection or spiritual side of this journey happens most obviously on the 8-day sea kayak expedition where they spend two full days alone on a beach. The metaphor is an hour glass as they have left behind a large world full with family and friends and have come to a small community that has stretched them in so many ways and then with 12 students and 2 guides the community of 70 now becomes much smaller and after 5 days of learning how to take care of one another paddling through a wild seascape, they are alone at the neck of the hourglass. For many this is the first time in their life that they have been completely disconnected. The solo experience is when most begin to look forward to rejoining their Island School community and to returning back home to their parents and friends and sending school community. How will they be different? How can they not be different?

Towards the end of the semester that school phone is not used as much - many students forget to call home and this is a problem for the parents still waiting for that precious weekly contact. Those who do call are sharing with excitement all that they have accomplished. At the end of this journey from boy to man the only fear is how to go back home.

Chris Maxey, Island School
About Chris Maxey