To say that recent Girls Preparatory School upper school head Jenise Gordon wants to see what is over the horizon might be a literal truth.
After what she calls 18 very enjoyable years at the school, including the last seven in administration, she recently decided to leave to hike the Appalachian Trail in its entirety.
“I’ve always wanted to hike the trail, and now seemed to be the right time to do it,” she said during an interview at the school before beginning the planned six-month jaunt.
“I just want to be out in the woods and listen to the sound of my own footfalls.”
For Ms. Gordon, heeding this call of the wild came due to a glance at the calendar as much as a look at the beautiful Appalachian countryside.
She turned 50 in April, she said, and feels that now is a good time to take a mid-life break while she is still in good physical condition. And while wandering through the Eastern United States or afterward, she also hopes to do some pondering to figure out her career plans for the rest of her working life.
“I have loved every single part about being at this school, but it just seemed right to try something else for a while,” she said. “But before that I needed to take a break.”
And that includes hiking the trail, which she began last month after helping coordinate the Volunteer Girls State gathering at Lipscomb University in Nashville. She said she had been preparing for the walk by exercising and hiking some around Chattanooga and elsewhere and thinking about what all food and equipment to take.
Coming to GPS in 2004 also came after a long journey of the cerebral kind. Reared in Jackson, Tn., where her parents often took the family camping for vacations and she learned about all kinds of outdoor activities, she was a multi-sport athlete at Jackson Southside High.
She was also the third-best student academically before graduating in 1990 and receiving a Presidential Scholarship to Union University, which she attended because of the school’s plans to start a softball program.
She was majoring in pre-med but while taking a class focusing on working with young people with learning disabilities, knowledge she figured she would need as a doctor working with children, she first became interested in education.
“I changed my minor to education and never looked back,” she said.
She was teaching at McMurray Middle School in Nashville when she heard about an opportunity at GPS from friend and then-GPS drama faculty member Suzanne Smartt, and she moved to Chattanooga.
“I honestly thought I would stay two or three years and see what else was out there, but I fell in love with the place,” she said. “It is an amazing school, and the girls are amazing.
“I could walk in the school and all I had to worry about was teaching. (The students) were kind, respectful, polite and a ton of fun. Every day in the classroom was fun.”
In 2015, she was named dean of students, but soon was asked by then-school head Dr. Autumn Graves to serve as interim and later permanent upper school head after predecessor Dr. Margaret Downs-Gamble left.
It was a role that offered new perspectives for Ms. Gordon, she said. “Administration has been a true growth opportunity for me,” she said. “Everything is more complicated than it seems. In administration, when seeing through the lens of a teenage girl, you see how much gray (area) there is.”
Although enjoying all the work while also teaching a freshman biology honors class, she began to see the green of nature as well and felt the pull to walk the trail and take a break. This urge was heightened by such experiences as hiking all 75 miles of the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in four days during spring break 2019.
For the current trek, she started in Maine and began hiking south, which is considered the more challenging way to go due to some tough stretches at the start. She has a friend who has gone along and is meeting her with supplies in towns near the trail every few days, saving her the extra work of having to mail food and supplies to herself as many hikers are forced to do.
Before leaving, she said she was constantly thinking about what all to pack – from tuna fish to potato meals, as well as battery packs for her phone.
She also imagined during the interview the non-humans she might encounter, saying she is not as worried about bears and snakes as much as the mice that are known to bother hikers in campsites. And she said she is fortunately not allergic – at least as far as she knows – to the poison ivy covering the trail during the warmer months.
While admittedly a little nervous about the long hike before she left, this former GPS assistant coach said she is comforted by her inner determination and belief that she is not a quitter. She has also been focusing a little more on the activities she won’t have to do instead of what she will have to conquer, as she is someone used to keeping busy.
“I’m excited about seeing what happens. I don’t do idle time well,” she said with a laugh. “I generally do need something to do.”
She does hope to enjoy some audiobooks and is chronicling her journey on her Instagram page (@jeniselgordon). As of July 4, she had already hiked well over 200 miles and had taken a brief off-trail break to enjoy a small-town Independence Day event in Maine, according to her post.
She also said during the pre-hike interview that she knows she will meet and pass plenty of hikers on the way on the popular trail, so she was also looking forward to that. “I’m so excited,” she said in summing the entire hike up.
Ms. Gordon, who also hopes to one day finish visiting all the U.S. national parks, feels confident GPS will keep moving along well, too. She said a 1996 alumna, Beth Wilson, has already been named to replace her, and Ms. Gordon plans to keep up with GPS after focusing on her own ever-changing GPS of the geographic kind across the hills and mountains of the Appalachians.
“It’s just going to keep moving and attract young women who want to be the best versions of themselves,” she said of the school. “I will always be an advocate for this school and a supporter and be thankful for the opportunity I’ve had.”