The Return

Ward Mailliard
Ward Mailliard

Today is the “Return Assembly” at Mount Madonna School for the Washington, D.C. experience. Here, our students will talk about what they learned on this recent journey. The “Return” is an essential part of each transformational journey. My dear friend, Sobonfu Somé, author and indigenous wisdom carrier once told me that it is the job of the village to welcome you back from an initiatory experience. This means that to truly complete the journey, we each need to be seen and heard in our new awareness, and we need to bring the gifts of what we have learned in that experience back to our community to be shared. She admonishes that not being seen at this stage creates isolation, even depression, and these important gifts can be lost if not acknowledged.

The “Call,” the “Journey” and the “Return” are the stages of the classical hero’s journey. The “Call” stage, is when we are invited to adventure. It is generally the point when the hero says “no” at least three times. Our “no” has a lot of information in it if we take the time to reflect. When I ask the students about the refusing the “Call” they understand it right away. They say, “It might not be worth it”, “I might fail”, “I might not be good enough”, “I am comfortable where I am”, “it is too much work”, and my favorite, “If I succeed then it will be expected of me in future.” The “Call” stage also contains the work of preparation, which can be demanding. Where do we find the energy to make an effort when we are unsure of the benefits?

If we expand the resistance of the “Call” to the general ethos of school, it is not hard to understand why motivating students is so hard. Imagine 16 years of preparation for life without any real assurance, other than a generalized faith that it will be worth it. I think this is why we resort to tangible inducements and fear as motivators. Perhaps we should rethink a bit so that students can see for themselves in a shorter time span that hard work pays off. We can do this through giving the direct experiences of learning that provide something more than the often-destructive competition for grades. We need to give experiential reinforcement so students have the faith to keep at it.


The “Journey” stage embodies the “social emotional” learning field. I learned this from a student who told me that this total immersion created the context in which the students shared an emotional bond, and were actually living their learning. She told me that with some reflective process along the way, the students could see what they were learning themselves, and as importantly they got to see what those around them were learning. This shared experience produces the kind of learning that allows students to know what they know, and, without reprisal, to see what others know. This does two things. It provides self-reflective awareness, and it allows students to recalibrate their own thinking on the basis of what they notice each other learning. This is at the root of the process of developing discernment. Some time ago I came to the conclusion that we would be much better off if “not knowing” would be a source of curiosity rather than guilt or shame.

Finally there is the “Return.” I have noticed that after the students get off the plane and into the arms of the family, on the journey home the questions tend to hover around, “what did you see, what did you do?” When returning from Africa, for example, after the student says “I saw the elephant, the lion and the rhino”, everyone has lost interest in the rest of the conversation, and there is a reservoir of unspoken learning that leaves the student isolated, and the journey is not complete. I think we need to remember to ask different questions. Our recently departed friend Angeles Arrien asked these questions. “How were you delighted, how were you challenged, how were you touched and moved, how were you transformed?” I often suggest to those going through an initiatory experience, to call up three friends when they get home and to say, “I will cook dinner for you and in exchange, here are the questions I want you to ask me so I can complete my journey.” Too often we don’t get a chance to reflect fully on the meaning of our experiences.

The Washington, D.C. “Return Assembly” is an opportunity for the mosaic of this transformational experience to be revealed by the chorus of the students’ individual points of view, spoken in harmony to parents, teachers, classmates, and friends. Somehow this process always seems to work, as the listening of the audience brings the students home and allows them to be seen and appreciated however they have been transformed. This becomes the ground of the next journey in the iterative process of life’s journey.

Our thanks to those of you who read our blog and attend our assembly, as you are vital participants in the learning of the students and the completion of our journey. We extend our thanks for your willingness to bear witness and to welcome our students home.

View the Santa Cruz Sentinel online article on our journey here.