The Athenian Wilderness Experience: A Parent’s Perspective

by Eric Niles, Head of School

I have learned first-hand these last ten days something that numerous Athenian parents have told me in the past—that AWE is a deep and moving experience for the parents of participants, not just for the students themselves. I am growing even though I have no pack on my back.

It started for me during “sorting” on the afternoon prior to departure (pictured above watching the sorting with wife Meg). It is here that our children get placed in their groups, don packs, and head off for a night on campus prior to the early morning departure the next day. I was very emotional and someone asked me if I was nervous about the trip. “No.” I replied. “These leaders [Jason and Phoebe] and group instructors are the most competent and professional individuals I could possibly imagine. They will be fine.” I was emotional because I was struck that my “little girl” was not little anymore; that this was a dress rehearsal for a college goodbye that was suddenly bearing down on me. Where had the time gone? Don’t get me wrong: I want my children to go off to college and become the independent adults they are meant to be. That is the natural course of things. I just knew in that moment, watching her walk away under the weight of her pack, that I wasn’t ready yet. I need to get ready.

Eric, Meg, and all the parents watching the grouping.

Eric, Meg, and all the parents watching the grouping.

Like other parents before me, I longed for information these last ten days. I understand and support our no-news-is-good-news policy and think it is undoubtedly the best way to maintain a professional trip and parents’ peace of mind. That said, the two letters I received yesterday let me exhale for the first time. She seems more than fine, is tired and challenged but strongly rising to the occasion, is having the time and space to think deeply, doesn’t have much time to miss home; is, in short, learning the things that give AWE its purpose. And I imagine the wait for those letters is preparing me for the wait during those first days of college when you just want to hear a laughing voice from a place that feels like “the right fit.” She is just not a little girl any more.This is one of those ironic times where life can seemingly move slowly (the wait for those letters) and incredibly swiftly all at the same time. The swiftness will be the realization at Run-In that she is different from the child that labored in the early morning of Sendoff under a pack that appeared to be an unbearable burden. Our relationship will have been put on fast-forward. She will return changed and it will take me time to catch up. And so I will be changed. I am not quite ready for that college departure, but I am more ready, more resilient than I was ten days ago. Our children will run in on April 1, and they will find their parents have gone on a journey as well. We will always carry the weight of care for our children on our backs, yet maybe the load will be just a bit lighter that day.

I look forward to seeing you on the field to hear about your experience, be it this year or a past one. See you on April 1.


Run-in 2012