Senior retreat balances fun, reflection, prayer

posted on April 25, 2012

The Red Cloud High School class of 2012 headed to the Black Hills for three days last week for the annual spring senior retreat.

The 47 students and seven faculty chaperones gathered first thing Wednesday morning for an opening prayer and smudging at the campus’ medicine wheel prayer site. Then everyone piled into busses for the two hour-long trip to the retreat location; Outlaw Ranch near Custer, SD.

The experience included many long-time senior retreat traditions. One of the first activities involved the students taping paper to their backs, and everyone walking around writing positive messages, compliments, and affirmations on each other’s papers. Participants also created “mailboxes” for themselves, and over the course of the three days, students and teachers wrote longer letters to each other, often expressing very poignantly how much they meant to one another. A final aspect of this activity group was that the seniors wrote letters to themselves, reflecting on the present and future, which the school will mail to them in a year’s time.

The emotional high point of the retreat came during the evening activities. The first evening featured the “stepping stones and obstacles” exercise, in which students reflect back, and talk about their lives thus far; the hardships and trials they have experienced, and the people who have helped them along the way. As happens every year, a few brave students – selected beforehand – stood up in front of the whole assembled group and gave their testimonies. This activity was a very powerful experience for all involved.

The second evening included a candlelight prayer service, in which all of the students talked about who in their lives – family, friends, and teachers – they are most thankful for and why. In doing so, they lighted their candles one-by-one from a candle in the center of the room, so that by the time the last person said his or her thanksgiving, everyone around the circle held a lighted candle. The exercise then concluded with a prayer song, and every shaking hands with each other or hugging around the circle.

On the middle day of the retreat, the students and chaperones traveled to Bear Butte, a mountain lying just outside the Black Hills that is one of the Lakota people’s most sacred sites. The base of the mountain is festooned with prayer flags – tobacco offerings from hundreds of petitioners, and the class added flags they had made during a prayer service the previous day by tying them to tree branches. After a prayer and song at the bottom, every made the steep and sometimes strenuous climb to the summit.

The class that returned to the Red Cloud campus after the retreat’s end was closer in many ways than they were when they departed. This was bittersweet for many of them considering that in another month, the graduating seniors will be preparing to go their separate ways. The bus ride home was a moving time for many, as students and staff alike finally read the letters that had accumulated in their personalized mailboxes.

Senior English teacher and retreat chaperone Mike Sunderland had this to say about the overall experience: “I thought the senior retreat was a great experience in which the class of 2012 came together more and learned more about each other. I thought that the retreat was a nice opportunity to get away from school for a little bit and become rejuvenated for the end of the year.”

When asked about her favorite part of the retreat, senior Sage Blacksmith said that the ascent of Bear Butte was definitely the highlight, but then she paused. “Well,” she said, “also getting up in the middle of the night to play a prank on the boys’ cabin. That was fun too.”

A good summation of the mixture of heartfelt prayer and lighthearted fun that is a hallmark of the Red Cloud’s class retreat program.