We’ve been walking along a creek in Lenk, Switzerland for a while, carefully skirting the edges of the path to avoid marring the smooth grooves of the langlauf, or cross-county skiing tracks. Now, the signs take us off the wide, flat track, into deep snow that clings to the side of a ridge.
It’s a brilliantly sunny Saturday in the Berner Oberland region of the Alps, where the entire student body and an entourage of about 50 adults have retreated for a weekend of laughter, teaching and worship in the mountains. I jump at the chance to go hiking after lunch, falling in line near the back of an enthusiastic group of students, eager to hike “to the waterfall.” That none of us have ever been there is no concern; we trust our guide, and besides, this waterfall is rumored to be frozen. We concoct grand visions in our imaginations, visions that now pull us up the hill.
I’ve grown up in the mountains, so this walk is familiar. Even after I left the Cascades behind for the hills of Seattle–Phinney Ridge, Crown Hill and Queen Anne–I’d get away every chance I could, seizing invitations to camp, hike and rock climb in the summer, to snowshoe and ski in the winter. I’ve never been on this particular path before, seen this particular waterfall, but I know what this feels like, sinking into snow up to my knees, peering up a wooded slope and searching for the horizon of the summit.
When we crest the hill, coming out onto a wide, snowy field occupied only by an icicle-edged barn, the students can talk and breath again. The path widens, and we walk side by side. I hear from a new junior about her home in Albania, the place she knows best of all. Former students ask me for book recommendations, and want to know why I became an English teacher. A senior tells me about her old school in Central Asia, which this year was performing a musical she loved.
“Do you miss it?” I ask.
She nods thoughtfully. In many ways, she reflects, BFA offers opportunities she wouldn’t have had back there. But yes, it’s hard to leave it behind. Always hard to leave behind.
Our path takes us up a wide, gentle valley, as we follow painted poles through the snowy wilderness. I strikes me that I don’t know where we’re going, but I can imagine it, because I’ve been places like it before. My students, international and less lovers of the outdoors than I, have only seen frozen waterfalls on the Internet and, well, Frozen.
The same, I suppose, is true of the paths that they’re walking on now. I could imagine what college would be like, because I chose to go to one in the same city where I’d grown up. I hadn’t been a student, but I could readily picture the transition. The seniors I talk to as we walk through the snow, they’re applying to universities all over the world, many in countries and states where they’ve never even visited. One young woman tells me that she and her siblings live on three different continents.
“How is that?” I ask her.
“It’s… hard. But when we are together,” she adds with a grin. “Then it’s very special. Very close.”
I’ve been volunteering this year with a women’s mentoring ministry called Walking Together. When we named the ministry, we discussed how the most important mentorship often springs from our willingness to come alongside one another in whatever circumstances fill our lives.
As staff at Black Forest Academy, we wonder often what we can do to prepare our students for the transition away from here, how we can equip them with the faith, joy and strength to make them resilient followers of Christ wherever they go next. The short answer, I think, is that we can’t. We’re not the sources of faith, joy or strength. The best we can do is keep walking with them towards frozen waterfalls and foreign lands, sharing our lives and pointing them back to Christ, their strength and joy wherever they go next.