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My eyes slowly closed to the last chords of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” fading from Mr. Connell’s guitar. It was the first night, and the day had been hectic, but things were going as planned. I looked around the cozy room and saw my classmates sprawled on couches and the floor, most of them already stepping outside their prescribed social barriers. It was time those walls came down. After weeks of preparation and almost cult-like secrecy, this was the senior Kairos Retreat—a four day spiritual high in the woods of Toccoa, Georgia.
Many people have asked me what the Kairos secret is, and I tell them I can’t explain it. Okay, so there actually are some tangible secrets, but those aren’t what “make” the retreat. The real secret is that after only a few hours, I talked honestly about private matters I wouldn’t normally share: childhood in China, my sister Ali’s baby years, and a rather non-communicational relationship with my parents. Perhaps that wouldn’t sound strange with close friends, but at the leaders’ retreat, a mini-Kairos lasting thirteen straight hours, the other student leaders weren’t people I knew well at all. I saw them in the halls and occasionally we chatted, but while they had classes together and hung out outside of school, I was an outsider. But once we started talking, none of that mattered anymore. That was the Kairos spirit.
At the retreat, we spent most of our time in the old dining hall, where everyone split into table groups headed by a student and adult leader. The leaders gave speeches on topics such as Know Yourself, Friendship, and Obstacles. Mine was Integrity, and as I stood at the podium tapping my foot to Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” – my pre-speech song – I thought about how before the retreat I worried that I wouldn’t be able to lead the table discussions well enough for my group to experience the Kairos they deserved. Once things started, I realized my worries were unfounded because while my job was to read the questions, more importantly, I was just another retreatant, learning things about myself and about my group like everyone else.
My leadership wasn’t about standing in front of the room and giving the speech as much as it was about inspiring reflection. It wasn’t always starting the conversation but rather sharing my stories so that others would be comfortable sharing theirs. And it definitely wasn’t forcing people to contribute, but instead making them comfortable enough to volunteer. It felt so natural that I didn’t even realize what I was doing until the third day, when my group dedicated its Kairos symbol to me, making me realize that this time I was the role model teachers and parents spoke of. Perhaps I’m not the Student Body President, but I do think of myself as a leader. Sometimes I’m in the front giving that speech, but other times I’m in the middle of the crowd organizing the event. The rest of the time, I’m in the back supporting the one onstage. At Kairos, I realized that I am all three, and that they are equally important.
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