Dear Parents, Guardians, Staff and Girls
There is a sense of anxious excitement at school as we send various groups off on outdoor trips. As you read this, I will be deep in the heart of the Imfolozi-Hluhluwe Game Reserve, away from all home comforts and technology, with a few Grade 11 girls and expert guides on a Wilderness Leadership School trail, founded by Dr Ian Player. He was inspired and assisted by Magqubu Ntombela, who was ‘an extraordinary game tracker for the then Natal Parks Board. He was to prove to be one of the greatest influences on Dr Player’s life.’ Ntombela’s grandfather had been one of King Shaka’s indunas in the area between the White and Black Imfolozi rivers in the 1860’s, and was a talented tracker, and also a vivid storyteller. Dr Player was also instrumental in saving the white rhino species from extinction in the same area. Their friendship was key in conceiving one of our country’s greatest conservation stories and educational initiatives, which has enriched our heritage and the lives of many thousands of participants for over 50 years. In the words of Player, ‘On trail we are guests of the natural world; we are humbled by wilderness, in awe of its complexity, power and beauty. Outside of this our egos rule.’ The impact of 5 days on a trail with only our clothes, a sleeping bag and some food is significant, especially for the youth, and our girls have for many years benefited from this life changing experience. I have no doubt that I will too, despite my affection for warm comfortable beds and hot showers! This week, 67 Grade 9 girls and their adult leaders left for their journey, mainly on foot, through the Drakensberg foothills and surrounding area, on their 3-week uHambo experience. This epic outing will provide a mixture of physical and mental challenges for the girls, as well as some significant times of joy, friendship and pride as they conquer these obstacles as well as many of their own doubts.
In the early 1900s, Bishop Baynes said the following regarding the vision for St John’s: ‘We would care very little if the girls did not turn out wonders and geniuses of intellect, if we could be sure they would turn out good.’ The school founders committed us to a liberal education, which extends beyond simply fitting girls with the basic skills to make a living. This is core to our ethos, as we balance academics with an emphasis on moral virtues, spirituality, resilience and hope to ‘awaken the soul of a child’.
To me, participation in activities such as those provided by the Wilderness School, uHambo and other tours is an opportunity to develop excellence and balance in the lives of our girls. According to Aristotle, excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do, he says. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. We aim to expose girls to life in the wild as opposed to reading about it. We challenge and debate with them regarding spiritual matters and values as opposed to forcing views on them. This allows them to become intelligent, discerning individuals not afraid to look deep within themselves in figuring life out. This can only occur in a space devoid of the distractions of our usual busyness, and away from the deluge of technological and social pressures surrounding us.
Local psychologist (and St John’s parent) Tim Barry, as well as other respected experts endorse these principles, particularly with reference to modern children. In many respects, according to these psychologists and outdoor educationalists, life has become too easy for children, as they risk losing ‘the ability to act contrary to impulse and in accordance with values’. We have a ‘choice between the hard right and the easy wrong’. uHambo therefore provides an opportunity to experience the benefits of pushing through tough activities, and reflecting on them afterwards. It also gives girls a simplistic existence for long enough for them to assess values, change habits and develop creative and cognitive skills in the absence of the pace of normal life and technology.
Psychologists warn that technological advances and social media highs numb the pleasure centres of the brains of children due to regular, addictive, dopamine rushes. These, in conjunction with a deluge of information and advanced games and movies, have resulted in children becoming technologically advanced, yet superficial and immature in developing relationships. Outdoor trips allow girls to get in touch with their true inner selves, whilst enjoying the calm, peace and beauty of nature, and develop deep relationships. They have to face real challenges which may involve pain (blisters, sore muscles) or require perseverance (you can’t ‘skip’ to the next hill with the press of a button). This develops character and authenticity, and awakens a wonder for the natural world.
In his book The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv stresses the need to provide children with ‘inconvenient tasks’, which may be difficult (putting up a tent, walking up a hill, washing dishes). Without uncomfortable challenges, we rob them of the opportunity of authentic, shared experiences essential to the development of a balanced child. Outdoor trips allow for ‘benignly negligent’ supervisors who are intimately involved with the girls, yet allow them the space to take responsibility for themselves, their actions and tasks. This allows for space to develop creativity and imagination. A sense of mastery will replace entitlement, with obvious long-term benefits to our girls.
Developmental psychologist, Davis Elkind, reports that children have lost more than 12 hours of free time per week in the last two decades. In trading away children’s down time, there is a significant decrease in creativity in children, and an increase in dependence on external motivators. This results in greater focus on materialism and status, according to Jean Twenge, Psychology Professor at San Diego University. ‘The ability to motivate ourselves internally is required to bring true and lasting happiness’, she says. Those who rely on external motivators are more prone to anxiety and depression. It is essential, therefore, to provide children with time and space in their routines, and an awareness of nature.
Thank you to all involved in the planning and execution of uHambo, the Wilderness Trail, the Grade 8 and 10 Tours, the Grade 11 World of Work and Relationship Workshops and Spirit of Adventure. These all add tremendous value to our girls. Thank you also those involved in the Trials examinations, the Women’s Day programme, the Interact Rise against Hunger initiative and the Youth Forum blankets’ project.
We will be sad to bid farewell to Mrs René Schoeman (English Department) on 24 August. Mrs Schoeman has been with us for over 20 years, first as a part-time extra English and Afrikaans teacher and then later teaching full-time, more recently only in the English Department. Mrs Schoeman is a most dedicated, caring teacher who is devoted to the girls and we wish her well in her retirement.
WORLD CHOIR GAMES
The Senior School Choir did us proud at the recent Interkultur World Choir Games in Pretoria. The Choir won in their category, “Music of Spirit and Faith”. We are very proud of our Music Department and Choir – well done to all involved!
Thank you to all who have contributed to another busy yet successful start to term 3. I wish all families a relaxing, half-term weekend.