Return to the Cave, January/February 2019

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.”
-Joseph Campbell

Make no mistake, the memories of being in Worley’s Cave back in 2010 are as permanent as the stalactites that hang from the ceiling of the cavern. The fear of the unknown, the inescapable darkness, the pervasive wetness, the cold mud, and the incredibly tight spaces all combine to make the annual sixth grade overnight caving trip a rite of passage unlike any other. I had not been on that trip since the founding year of the French Broad River Academy, and I decided a while back that it was time to reconnect with the cave. Would I discover the “treasure that I seek?” Despite some initial fears, something inside me told me the answer would be “yes.”

I met up with trip leaders Dave Clarke and Felix Dowsley at Winged Deer Park just outside Johnson City, the small eastern Tennessee town where I grew up and graduated from high school. Coincidentally, the spot where we ate lunch happened to overlook my parents old house on Boone Lake. After a quick lunch, we headed to the trailhead where we would stage our overnight expedition into Worley’s Cave.

Co-founders David Byers and Will Yeiser at Worley’s Cave in 2009.

As we pulled into the open field of grass to park, the memories of being there with the founding students of the academy came flooding back to me. It was me, along with co-founder David Byers and the original twelve students that signed up for our unproven and untested program, and a volunteer parent who would serve as our guide. At that time, I had never spent a night in a cave, nor explored a cave more than a couple hundred feet. Basically, everything we were doing was a pioneering effort, and we did not know exactly what to expect, much like the entire first year of the school.

Will with current sixth graders in Worley’s Cave.

We checked our headlamps, made sure our bags were water proofed, and headed inside. The beauty and tranquility of the silence and darkness of the cave immediately took over. I remembered that moment like it was yesterday, and there was comfort in the familiarity of a place I had visited almost a decade ago. As we continued our journey into the deep recesses of the cave, the trip leaders would periodically have the group stop, find a comfortable position (relatively), and sit in silence.  Part of this was to help the students acclimatize to the darkness and silence of the cave while preparing them to spend the night in the cave.

During these prolonged moments of silence, I found myself entering a deep meditative state, reflecting on the caving trip, our outdoor program, and most importantly, why we commit the time, effort, and resources to these types of experiences. The natural beauty of the cave and its unforgettable formations are what initially stands out to the students, and I thought I would experience the same overwhelming sense of awe.

Mr. Yeiser and Mr. Dowsley emerge from Worley’s Cave with current sixth graders.

However, the epiphany I experienced had little to do with the cave itself, but rather the realization of how the sixth grade caving trip brings together all the parts of our mission and program in an intentional and powerful way. So many of the transformative moments that occur in the cave are the outcome of the planning and preparation that occurs beforehand.

The clearest example of this occurred immediately after assembly on the morning of the trip.  After a couple of sing-a-longs, the seventh and eighth graders dissipated into their different vans and left for the Congareee Swamp and Grandfather Mountain respectively. However, the sixth graders were told to stay seated. Mr. Clarke and Mr. Dowsley asked the students to unpack the bags they had so carefully prepared the night before. I initially thought this was an excessive step for the sixth graders. Over an hour later, I entered the multipurpose room to find all the students seated with their bags open organizing all their gear in trash bags to make sure everything was 100% waterproof. It then dawned on me that the real work of the three-day caving trip was occurring right before my eyes. Everyone likes to reference the moments when the students are in the cave posing for a picture next to an elaborate rock formation. However, it suddenly clicked for me that the reason that the “photo moment” in the cave even occurs is because of the countless hours of thought and preparation that happen before the trip even leaves the school campus.

Students organize their bags in preparation for the cave.

The bouldering and swimming experiences our students receive through our PE program before the winter three-day trip equip our sixth graders with the skills to navigate successfully through challenging tight spaces and over slippery boulders in the dark. I imagine there would be significantly more slips and falls if it were not for the countless hours of bouldering both indoors and at Rumbling Bald on field lessons. Wading and swimming across a swollen creek in a cave would deter even some of the bravest adults. However, the deep level of practice and familiarity of these skills empowers our students to successfully overcome this type of challenge both inside the cave and when we are on the rivers.

FBRA student practices safe swimmer position as part of safety training.

Another outcome of the caving trip has to do with preparation for the homestay experience in Costa Rica. It never occurred to me that one goal of the overnight caving trip was to put all of the sixth grade students in a completely unfamiliar and uncomfortable setting to prepare them for the homestay component of the international field experience in Costa Rica. As disorienting and unnerving as the cave overnight is, it pays huge dividends when students are expected to complete an extended stay with a family in a foreign country. The cave becomes a powerful metaphor and reference point as students try to manage the anxiety and stress of another unfamiliar situation.

“Think back to the cave when you were unsure about how things would be. At the end of it, you were jumping up and down with excitement and you wanted to go back in. That’s what this homestay will be like…you won’t want to leave your family.” That type of conversation would not be possible without the groundwork that is laid in the cave.

I was not sure what to expect from my return to the cave after all these years. However, after emerging from the infinite darkness of Worley’s Cave, I knew that I had found “the treasure that I sought,” an affirmation of our mission of building character and integrity in young people for a lifetime of learning and service.

Serving the Community, November/December 2018

During early winter, our students and staff use our weekly field lesson days to focus on service learning, a key component of the FBRA experience. We partner with local non-profits like Greenworks, Manna Food Bank, and RiverLink to contribute over 2,000 thousand hours per year of important service work in our community. From removal of invasive species to collecting tires from the river banks, the signature bright neon shirts of the Salamanders can be seen working throughout the Western North Carolina Region.

While it creates a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment to, say, prepare meals for the homeless, there is a deeper purpose behind our service learning curriculum that is greater than the act of the actual service project itself. First, however, I would like to share how service learning was woven into my life and eventually became a core piece of the FBRA program.

Throughout my high school years, I participated in several volunteer clubs and service project programs through my church and school. I admit that my initial efforts were partly inspired by college applications and my desire to have a well-rounded resume. Over time though, I came to enjoy service work opportunities as much as I enjoyed whitewater kayaking, playing sports, or any other after-school endeavor.

My passion for service learning continued into my college years at Vanderbilt, where I participated in a program called “Alternative Spring Break (ASB).” ASB is just that, an alternative to the traditional spring break trip to the beach or to the mountains out west for a week of skiing with friends. Participants spend the week completing service projects in different locations across the country.  I spent my first year in rural West Virginia addressing rural poverty issues, and my sophomore year we helped build homes with Habitat for Humanity in Beaufort, South Carolina. By my junior year, I co-led a group of Vanderbilt students to inner-city Detroit to work in the failing public school system there. This experience of seeing first-hand some of the inequities in our education system later inspired me to apply for the Teach for America program to directly confront social justice issues.

My experience with ASB allowed me to step out of the Vanderbilt “bubble” and receive a healthy injection of grounding and perspective on a variety of social issues in our country.  As Gandhi reminds us, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”  ASB provided the capacity for me to “lose myself in the service of others” and provide a new lens on topics and issues of which I was unaware.  I discovered more about my passions and what I wanted to pursue in my life through these intense weeks of service than I did in any of my undergraduate course work.  It was a transformative experience for me, and I am a strong supporter and advocate for this type of programming for any student at almost any level.

It should come as no surprise that service work has been an integral part of the FBRA experience since our doors opened back in 2009.  We work very hard to immerse our students in meaningful service projects so they can begin to “find themselves.” During the critical middle school years when identities and values are forming, our students are exposed to a variety of service projects throughout the year.  Our hope and aspiration for our students is that through the work, action, and ultimately the habit of service, they will experience the joy and fulfillment of serving others. And in that moment of reflection and growth, our students may discover a new passion or pursuit that they would otherwise not experience.

Service learning, like all of our programming, is designed to accomplish our mission of building character and integrity in young people.  While consistently providing thousands of hours of service work per year in our community has a significant impact, the most important outcome is a generation of graduates inspired to contribute to the betterment of society grounded in an ethos of service unto others.

Happy Holidays to all, and I look forward to an incredible year in 2019!