I Signed Up For A School Field Trip. It Turned Out To Be Like A Cult.

“So, what do you think the senior year retreat will be like?” my friend asked.

In my mind, I pictured it to be like Survivor.

Stranded on a remote tropical island, a group of students learn to explore the wilderness, climbing trees, swimming in the ocean, building large sandcastles. Days are spent laughing and relaxing on the beach, without a care in the world.

I got sleep-inducing sermons at the pulpit of a musty room instead.

The Eerie Place On Top Of A Hill

Every year, my high school would host a retreat for graduating seniors. The retreat was held at a facility on the very top of a hill, so remote that there is neither phone nor Internet access. The facility was very run-down; it looked as if it had seen a few ghosts in the past. Allegedly, the purpose of the retreat was to bring students together and enlighten them about the importance of relationships in life, though it is dubious if it actually achieved that purpose.

Though teachers chaperoned the retreat, it was mostly run by “counselors,” who were college-age past retreat attendees. Students were placed into groups of roughly ~5–7 people per counselor. The retreat uncannily resembled church. Each morning, a student would go up to the pulpit and give a “morning reflection” on the past day’s message, much like prayer. Then, after breakfast, the groups would attend different speeches by camp counselors, much like sermons. The speeches dealt mostly with family relationships, as the counselors would talk about personal life experiences. Each speech was followed by lengthy group discussion and journaling. In between the speeches, there would be random bouts of group singing, usually to songs more than a decade old. What does that remind you of? Ah, yes, church singing.

After reading this, you may think that the retreat isn’t terrible. What you just read is the thin sheet of ice covering the deep, dark Arctic Ocean.

Lack of Boundaries And A Vow Of Secrecy

What do the retreat and The Fight Club have in common? You are not allowed to talk about both. The retreat was covered in a shroud of secrecy; past retreat attendees were not allowed to disclose any details about the retreat in any format. You may be wondering why I am writing this, if that is the case. Long story short, the retreat got cancelled. More on that later.

This begs the natural question, “Why the secrecy?” The retreat is kept secret so its attendees could feel a false sense of security. A common saying that counselors liked to say was, “There are no walls between us.” This saying applies in the literal sense, as there were no walls separating 15 students in the barracks. However, this saying applies figuratively as well. The retreat was a breeding ground for oversharing. In discussions, students would share the most intimate details of their lives that they wouldn’t normally share. In fact, such divulging of personal information was encouraged by the counselors. During one discussion, I remember there was a student who genuinely had nothing to say. Despite that, the counselor kept pushing him to say something, even though he was clearly uncomfortable.

The so-called “highlight” of the trip was the letter-reading ceremony, in which a teacher would read letters that parents wrote to students in front of the entire class. Without permission from students, the teacher would read every part of the letter, no matter how personal it was. I was utterly disgusted by this brazen disregard for student privacy. There were letters that brought up very sensitive information, such as poor home lives, that not every student needed to know.

When you are told that everything will be kept secret, you let your guard down. You say things you normally wouldn’t say because you are tricked into feeling safe. However, the faux feelings of safety do not obscure reality: there are people who have malicious intentions who will do harm with your information. These students deserved better than a facade of “confidentiality.” At the very minimum, students should have the right to privacy.

Not-so-Subtle Religious Overtones

The content of the retreat was not religious in nature, as there were no overt references to any particular religion. The format of the retreat, however, had some not-so-subtle religious overtones. As mentioned earlier, students gave reflections on the day’s topics at a pulpit before meals; counselors gave “sermons”; there were several instances of singing hymn-like songs. There was even a candlelight ceremony, where a group would gather around a candle and say “prayers” for loved ones. For those unacquainted, candlelight ceremonies are part of many religious rituals.

Keep in mind this was at a public school, where the constitutional amendment of separation of church and state is in full effect. Given that the content was not religious, separation of church and state was not violated, but the retreat straddled a thin line.

Though the retreat did not adopt any religious content, the retreat was very rigid. There was an activity where students had to rate life values from 1 through 10 on importance; for each value, students would stand in locations corresponding to the number they rated it. Students with differing opinions from the norm were not taken seriously; they were shamed and mocked.

After going to the retreat, I was curious as to where the religious influences came from. I did some research and found out that the retreat was inspired by Kairos, a Catholic school retreat. If you do some reading, you will find out that the rituals of Kairos and my school retreat were virtually the same.

No Concern For Student Welfare

The retreat claimed to be about “love.” Ironically, the organizers of the retreat didn’t have much love for the students. There was very little counselor training and oversight. The counselors were college students without much formal training in counseling. Keep in mind that students talked about difficult issues on the retreat. They talked about past traumas. They talked about sexual abuse. They talked about divorce and death. These topics are not easy to discuss even for the most seasoned professionals, let alone novice college students. A typical counselor in mental health receives years of specialized training, with most counselors receiving advanced degrees. Without much training, these “counselors” could do more harm than good.

In addition, counselors and staff were not well-versed in handling sexual assault, which ultimately led to the demise of the retreat.

Though the retreat claimed to be drug and alcohol free, I can assure you that it wasn’t. Students smoked, vaped, and drank in secret, and the counselors turned a blind eye to it.

The retreat cost well over $300. That is not a small amount of money, even for a middle class family. What can $325 buy? It can buy a semester’s worth of college textbooks. It can buy a month’s worth of food. It can help feed 30 hungry families in the United States. The retreat was not accessible to everyone, which runs contrary to the retreat’s espoused values of inclusiveness. If the aim was to give students a fun experience before graduation, there were so many cheaper options, like hiking, that cost significantly less.

Forced “Bonding”

After the retreat, I noticed that students who barely knew each other before were yelling “I love you!” in the hallways.

I was so shocked. Even though I got to know people better, I could not fathom the thought of me saying “I love you” to a person I barely knew. The groupthink was real; one person would start doing it, and soon after, the whole grade would be following along.

The organizers of the retreat tried too hard to bring people together, but its attempt, like everything else in the retreat, was a facade. A cheap magic trick. An organized show carefully calculated to bring in all the fans.

People do not like being forced to bond with each other. The more you force people to like each other, the harder you push them apart. It was only natural, then, for the feelings of “togetherness” the retreat created to be temporary.

Interestingly, if you give people a legitimate activity to do, like hiking, running, or swimming, they will naturally come together. As for the ones who don’t, that is fine; not everything works out.

The campsite was surrounded by beautiful hiking trails, yet sadly, very little time was spent hiking them.

After all of this discussion, you may be wondering why the retreat got cancelled. A few years back, one of the directors got in trouble for having an illicit relationship with a counselor, and the organizers of the trip failed to report it. Am I surprised? No. Given the secretive atmosphere with very little supervision, it doesn’t shock me at all that scandals like this emerged.

Am I horrified and saddened that nothing was done, that no one ever took a deeper look into the atmosphere of the retreat and decided to reform it for good?

Absolutely.

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