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From The Schoolhouse: The Opportunity of New
John McVeigh

There I was, dangling off a cliff in the middle of the desert and the only thing keeping me from a perilous fall was a strong-willed student-belayer at the other end of the rope. 

I found myself asking, how did I end up here? I knew I needed to focus on the challenging task at hand, but the question stuck in my head. The here could have referred to a few places. At the moment, it was the vertical rock wall I had just struggled up before getting stuck.  Here also meant Joshua Tree National Park, the striking desert terrain surrounding me that I was visiting for the first time. I might have even just meant Holderness in general. When I signed up to be the Head of School, I didn’t think it included scaling rock faces! 

Perhaps I should back up — When our classes and exams ended in December, I had a fantastic opportunity to join a number of our students on a trip out west to Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert of California.  Director of Outdoor and Climbing Programs Erik Thatcher ’08 and Strength and Conditioning Coach Andrea Sweet led this annual excursion. So naturally, I was excited to see our students and my colleagues in action and in their element.  But it was also a chance for me to try something new: rock climbing.

While I have long enjoyed and appreciated the outdoors, I had never rock climbed. I consider myself a fairly athletic person, but at six feet four inches tall, my particular version of athleticism seems better suited to the familiar hardwood of a basketball court than it does scaling up a rock wall.   

New can be scary.  But there is also real freedom and excitement when you are new. There are no heavy expectations, and you feel a liberating sense of adventure and exploration, especially when you have some help!  Lucky for me, experienced climbers Bryce ‘23, John ‘23, and Drake ‘25 were so generous with their time and expertise. They helped me every step of the way, completely flipping our traditional student-teacher roles as they educated, corrected, and encouraged me in my new pursuit. But, beyond their helpful instruction, I learned so much simply from watching them in action – the creativity they showed in finding new ways to explore the terrain, how they supported each other, and the joy they took from finding new paths. 

I also witnessed two master educators, Mr. Thatcher and Coach Sweet, who so skillfully understood the power of putting kids in new and challenging environments that cultivate creativity, resilience, and exponential growth. 

But no one was more of an inspiration or a revelation than Jessica ‘23.  Unlike her fellow students, Jessica arrived in the Mojave with absolutely no rock climbing experience.  When I asked her why she had come, she simply said, “Because it looked fun, I like challenges, and I couldn’t leave Holderness without trying it.”  She made up for whatever she lacked in technique with her infectious enthusiasm and relentless drive.  Even to a beginner like me, it was clear she was improving every single time she climbed.  My lasting memory of this trip will be watching her fearlessly tackle a climb in the Jumbo Rocks campground, where she deployed the very techniques she had just learned to scale a crack in the face of the wall.  Momentarily stuck 50 feet off the ground at a particularly challenging spot, she refused to give up.  When she reached the top, the evident joy on her face had been well and truly earned.  

All of this seems especially fitting as we welcome the start of 2023.  One of the best and most exciting opportunities of new experiences is the chance to test your limits and overcome your fears.  When you try the unknown, you realize that your mind is usually just exaggerating – that the disaster you imagined is rarely the actual result.  Every time you put yourself in a new situation, you force your brain to understand a unique set of circumstances, process how to handle those circumstances, and develop new skills.  It was so inspiring to watch Jessica sail through this process in just a few days. 

Part of the magic of Holderness is that we intentionally and consistently put our students into these types of new environments, sometimes situations well outside their comfort zone, so that they can grow in meaningful ways.  And it turns out it works for adults, too!   

That is not to say I am now a great rock climber – far from it.  I wish I could say that my growth curve mirrored Jessica’s. The truth is, I failed as often as I succeeded in Joshua Tree.  In fact, I had to abandon my final climb midway through when my back gave out.  But just a few hours later, on my plane ride home, I found myself scouring the internet for articles on how to improve.  I’ve already committed to returning to Joshua Tree next year, and I can’t wait to try that final climb again.  And I’ll do my best to follow Jessica’s example.    

Wishing everyone a wonderful 2023 and the best of luck as you explore whatever is new to you.

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