I was 11 years old, a quiet sixth-grader. That day, we embarked on a field trip to a place called Hemlock Overlook. The bus ride was animated, filled with the excited conversations of my fellow classmates. I silently observed the scenes passing us by and wondered just where we were headed. Field trips had always been fun for me: museums, the zoo. This place was unfamiliar to me and I was curious and anxious about what we would find.
The school bus pulled into a dense, wooded area. It seemed to be a giant park. It was a giant park. A giant park, as I came to learn, that was filled with a variety of physical fitness-inspired activities. Games. A zip line that I eyed warily and ultimately refused to climb. The whole thing was weird and stressful. On one hand, it was nice to hang out with some of the few friends I had in my classroom. I was a shy girl, but there were some kids I was actually comfortable with; I remember some of us sitting around a table and talking/laughing. On the other hand: I wasn’t a fitness girl by any means. Sure, I “played” soccer during recess, which essentially meant just standing around while the real dynamos kicked the ball. This was intense. Needless to say, I was always last in each of these activities and I was always slow.
Then came the rope.
In the middle of the area was a large mud hole. The point was to grab a rope and swing across the hole to get over to the other side. Simple, right? I wanted to throw up. I had already failed at every single activity. Why would this end up in anything other than total disaster? Of course, I was last to go. I gulped. I grabbed the rope. Gravity took over, if only for a few seconds. I was moving. Moments later, all of me was drowning in mud.
Raucous laughter ensued. I think my teacher was even laughing. I was a mess. Clothes, face, everything covered in mud. I wanted to cry, scream, even chuckle a little so they would think I had been on it the whole time, purposely falling into a mud hole for some attempt at comedy.
On the bus ride back to the school, I listened as some of the kids talked about me. The mud on my clothes. How I looked. Describing how I fell in the hole. I remember gazing out of the window and wishing–and it wouldn’t be the first time in my adolescent life–that I could just disappear.
The website for Hemlock Overlook states that these adventures teach the adventurers about team collaboration. If the goal was to teach my classmates, even my teacher, how to collaborate by laughing at me in unison, then, yes, it worked. I learned a few different things from the experience, however. How to be humiliated. How to hold in my tears for more opportune moments when they could be released comfortably. How to sit in the filth of mud and hold my head up while people around me were sending darts by way of words in my direction. No one comforted me. No one patted me on the back and said, “Sorry, This Square Peg, at least you tried.” Nothing like that occurred.
In the past, when I’ve randomly thought about this memory, the clarity of hindsight never comes. My adult brain is rarely able break it down in a palatable way. (For years, I think I even repressed it, not really sharing the story with friends.) But looking back now, I’ve realized a few things about what the experience taught me. For one thing, I have a deep, deep spot in my heart for the kind of kid I was back then. The slower ones, the ones picked last, the ones who aren’t adept at team sports or athletics. Those are the children I want to hug and assure. Secondly, my mother has always reminded me to keep my dignity in any situation. To keep my cool. That moment on the school bus was certainly the beginning of learning how to do just that. Even if my insides were turning into mush. Le sigh.
Sometimes it takes place while sitting quietly on a school bus, trying not to cry, trying to hold on. Nevertheless: you learn.
What are your seminal moments from childhood? What did you learn? Share? Pretty please?