Going the Distance…

by Tefi Ma’ake

“I’ll be there someday. I can go the distance. I will find my way, if I can be strong. I know ev’ry mile, will be worth my while. When I go the distance, I’ll be right where I belong.”

A smile spread across my face a few minutes ago as I heard a student singing these words as I passed her in the hallway. Two days ago, I took 120 girls on the Junior Retreat. These words from the theme song of the Disney film, Hercules, were the foundation of the retreat theme, “I Can Go the Distance.” I usually walk away from a retreat, happily exhausted that the day was successful and thankfully over. This retreat was different, and I have to admit that I’m still floating from the experience of grace that was shared on Junior Retreat. Trying to plan a 5 hour retreat for a whole class of 120 students that is fun, meaningful and meets them where they are on their spiritual journey is challenging. And today as I reflect on the retreat experiences I have had this year with my students, I am grateful for this challenge and the many ways it has challenged me.

The Junior Retreat was the end product of months of planning and preparation with my small but dedicated team of seniors. It was unanimous when we first began planning that junior year in high school is one of the most stressful times. The students I work with face much more pressure to overload on AP courses, get the best grades, and be involved with as many extracurricular activities and service opportunities as possible, than I ever did as a student. By Junior year, everything is about preparing for the college and the best colleges at that. Because of this, we wanted the day to be as uncomplicated, un-stressful, and unstructured as possible (a challenge in and of itself for my strong J personality). We began the retreat by praying together and breaking open our theme, highlighting for the students that the journey to reach where we belong is often difficult, and at times we feel we can’t make it. St. Paul reminds us however, that “[we]can do all things through Christ who strengthens [us]” (Philippians 4:13), but we have to do our part – we have to train as Olympians do (keeping with the Greek theme), and training means taking care of and nurturing all parts of ourselves. Finally we asked the students to be open to this new experience that would be different from retreats they had been on in the past and to simply have fun.

And open they were. And fun they had, indeed. The day’s activities were split into different training stations – activities that help us not only to relax and de-stress, but ways in which it is important to train our whole selves for the journeys we travel. The first station was our own “Mini-Olympics” – a relay race meant to be fun and emphasize the importance of taking care of our physical selves. The second station focused on arts and crafts – allowing the students to use their creativity and expression. The third station, “Talk it Out,” consisted of a panel of seniors and a chance for the juniors to communicate openly and honestly about the things weighing on their hearts. The fourth, and intentionally longest, station was an hour of Centering Prayer and Yoga. I can’t begin to explain the tangible peace and grace that filled the room as 60 students allowed themselves to be quiet and pray together. Our station rotation was followed by lunch together, and an open reflection on the day for closing prayer.

I cried as hand after hand went up during our closing prayer. It’s not often that 16 and 17 year old girls feel comfortable and safe enough to share about their faith in front of 120 fellow classmates, but they did. They were grateful for the chance to leave the stress and pressures they normally carry back on campus. They were enthusiastic about the fun they had out on the field and during the creative arts section. They were relieved to hear from the seniors that there is hope and an end to the craziness of junior year life. But perhaps the most powerful feedback was their sharing on their prayer and yoga experience. I realized as they were sharing how hungry they are for silence, how much they yearn for the peace that comes from centering themselves in prayer. I also realized how little opportunity they have for this. Since the retreat students have asked if it would be possible to have a zero period class (that would meet at 7 am) dedicated to prayer and meditation and yoga. When I asked one student why she thought this would be helpful, she shared, “I’m usually so tired all day, but after the yoga prayer I felt relaxed, but energized – like I really could go face the things before me and ‘go the distance.’

I know she threw the theme in there to make me smile, but her thoughts made me think. How often do I take time out of my busy day to pray, or even to just be quiet – to turn off the television, cell phone, facebook and ipod? How many times do I think to myself that there is just too much on my “to do” list and get discouraged and doubt that I can reach my goal? If I’m asking my students to make time in their schedules to nurture these different parts of their selves, how must I also make time and priority for them in my own life? It is so much easier for me to explain how important this balance is to my students and encourage them to do these things, then it is for me to listen to my own advice. Junior Retreat was an incredible experience for me, not only because of what it offered my students, but also because of the reminder it held for me as I make my way through my own journey of faith. This journey I’m on isn’t always easy, and sometimes I need to train a little harder, believing it is always worth it and that…“I’ll be there someday, I can go the distance. I will find my way, if I can be strong. I know ev’ry mile will be worth my while. When I go the distance, I’ll be right where I belong.”

Tefi Ma’ake is the Campus Minister and Morality teacher at an all-girls Catholic high school in Los Angeles, CA. This Thanksgiving she is grateful for the many women, especially her students, who inspire and encourage her to “go the distance.”

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