Freshmen retreat fosters a sense of community within Class Nine


Isabella Gidi and Harrison Wright

Seniors and freshmen cheer on their house teammates during the freshmen retreat relay race.

Riya Nimmagadda and Kaviya Dhir

It isn’t every day that eating a dirt-stained, bruised plantain is considered a win. As the timer counted down in the freshmen retreat relay race, twin brothers Matias and Gabriel Pope scarfed down their plantain, leading Winston house to an unexpected victory.

The weekend before school began, the Class of 2026 embarked on a two-hour trip to Carolina Creek, where an amalgamation of house competitions, outdoor activities and bonding activities awaited them. 

Also along for the ride were almost 40 senior camp counselors, who were tasked with fostering a sense of community and bridging the gap between students who are new to St. John’s and those who have been at the school for years.

Activities included intense games of nine square, complex ropes course and countless hours of swimming.

But every year, the highlight of the trip is the relay race. As part of this intense house competition, freshmen execute 20 simple tasks such as writing the Alma Mater, tossing bean bags and reciting the alphabet backwards. As each task is completed, team members passed a baton—a yellow plantain—to the next person. By the end of the race, each plantain was a bruised, filthy mess. 

Claremont took an immediate lead—more than three tasks ahead of the next closest house. 

“Everyone was running after them, screaming and shouting, but in a good way,” said senior Dalia Khera, a member of the Mulligan house.

In the final minutes, the other houses narrowed the gap, and Hoodwink took the lead. As the plantains arrived at the final station, Winston, who had been trailing the majority of the race, turned the tables thanks to the Popes.

“The captains and all the teams emphasized spirit,” Khera said. “They cheered everyone on with a positive attitude, never putting anyone down—it’s very healthy.” 

Marty Thompson, the Director of Experiential Education, organized this year’s retreat.

“We’ve watched the benefits of what happens to a class on the freshmen retreat,” Thompson said. 

Since Thompson began his freshman year at St. John’s in 1987, Class 9 has grown by 35%. In efforts to support the increasing number of new students, Thompson and former Head of School Mark Desjardins re-launched the Freshmen Retreat, a trip that temporarily “died out,” according to Thompson.  

“We want to clear time and space for people to share time together away from home,” Thompson said. 

Thompson designated time for team building, school spirit and recreation. Free time wasn’t as structured, with opportunities for indoor and outdoor activities.

“There are a lot of people I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t gone to camp,” freshman Khoi Chu said.