Thursday, September 18, 2014

Remembering My Fifth Grade Self

When I was in the fifth grade our whole class got to go on a trip to a sleep away camp.  It was a much anticipated part of my Catholic school experience, and for years I heard whispers about how amazing it was going to be.  I looked forward to it as much as I looked forward to the other huge event that was a part of the life of every fifth grader at St. Joseph's school - the fifth grade play.  Looking back I can see how both of these experiences changed me, and shaped both my childhood and my world view.  Both have been on my mind for some reason.  They keep popping up, so I thought I would share a bit about each.  Tonight, it's a touch on Camp Glinodo.

I went to camp many times as a kid - always to the lakeside cabins of Camp Glinodo in Erie, Pennsylvania.  The first big trip was my week long trek in the fifth grade.  There were a few parents with us, and our teachers and some faculty members too.  I'm sure taking 50 kids to camp during the spring of each school year was a huge undertaking for those folks.  The fact that we were pre-teens probably made it a little easier but there was an excitement of being away from home and away from our everyday book and pencil routine that made us giddy and revved up for the whole experience.  I went to the same camp with girl scouts too, and again in eight grade and as a teenager, but this was our whole class and it was a great big deal.  They loved to threaten us with taking camp away and it worked for a stretch of about five years because if you missed it, the world just might end.

The boys and girls had separate cabins with rows of bunk beds that we joyously jumped on and sang "It's a Hard Knock Life" from ANNIE while bouncing in between them.  In later trips I remember we were too cool for that so we bounced and sang along with The Beastie Boys instead.  There were campfires and sing-alongs each night.  We went on ghost story hikes with flashlights and creek walks that ended in a huge shaving cream fight.  Each day we made trips to the "Big House" for canteen where there were cans of pop and Swedish fish to be had.  Everywhere there was talk of how we would remember this forever, and they were right.

Even though I can remember huge chunks of those days, from the taste of the bananas that we split and filled with marshmallows and chocolate chips and then set in foil wrapped packets on the grill, to the joy that spread like a glow through me when I was picked out for the special job of finding kindling for that night's fire, one moment stands above the others.  It is an odd little thing, but throughout my life I have come to it again and again and played it back when I needed to make it through a tough or troubling time.

I remember walking with my best friend Jennifer around the side of the cabin we were staying in.  I could see the trees swaying and hear the gravel crunching under my feet.  I know my sneakers were pink and smelled faintly of strawberries - I remember them well.  The sun was sparkling and beating hot on my face even though there was a chill in the air and the ground was still damp from the morning dew.

In that moment, I felt something.  It wasn't God, although there was much talk of Him beings that it was Catholic retreat, and we said our prayers each day and had just made matchstick crosses in arts and crafts.  It was more of a sense of total and utter contentment and the realization that I was in the perfect place at the perfect time.  I felt that all was right with the world, and that I was an important part of it, even if I was a tiny pebble on a long road stretching out before me.  I was there.  I could suddenly see a great big world all around me that wasn't anything but mine and a spark of wonder at how lucky I was to be in it.  I could see it all from up above myself, like a picture that was hanging in a frame.

I bent down and tied my shoelace and I stared up at the blue sky and pine trees.  I tried, from that position on my knee on the powdery gray gravel to put words to it.  I asked Jen: "Have you ever looked at yourself from far above you?  Like you were flying by and knew that's where you were supposed to be?  That everything was just right and you could see yourself on the ground and be flying and looking too?"

I was met with a blank stare.  I knew I had articulated what I was feeling as best as my fifth grade self could.  I wanted her to give me the reassurance that I wasn't crazy and that everybody felt like this, and at the same time I wanted to be the only one in the world who knew this feeling and who could be this sure in knowing I belonged.  My heart beat fast and I could taste a metallic panic rising in my throat.

There was a long pause.  Then a smile, and an "I'll race you."  With that, she stretched out her arms like an airplane and made to dash.  In a heartbeat I was flying along beside her.  I didn't know where I was racing to, but I could see myself in my mind and in my eyes tearing along on the path and not caring where it lead.  In not answering she left me to my moment and yet managed to acknowledge everything I felt was true and real and my feelings mattered.

I have looked back on that moment hundreds of times.  I like to remember that certain little girl with the sun in her hair and her windbreaker flapping out behind her, while the grown ups all shouted at her to slow down.  I think of my strawberry shoes and the laces that were still dangling and would trip me up later, in front of a boy I had a big crush on.  Most of all, I think of the me that exists in this moment.  The one that is flying up above and looking back at all the things that went before and shaped the here and now.  A hundred versions have looked down at the ten year old who would I know would shout "hellloooo up there!" and fly along forward, as sure of her place in the universe as anyone could be.   The child in me spreads her wings and pushes off, soaring along the gravel ground, and reminds me I have places yet to go.

Fifth grade me is the blonde standing in the back, second from the right.  My Wham T-shirt said "Choose Life".

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