We spent the whole summer outside. Any time we didn’t have to be in the house, we got out of it as quickly as we could. We had a big backyard, with a creek and a woods, and we spent all our time there. We ran around barefoot; we felt the dirt in our toes and sticks pierced our skin, but not for long – our feet calloused over in days. We walked barefoot along the hot road, black with new asphalt. The feeling of almost, but not quite, burning our feet tickled and sent shivers up our spines. We raced down that road, our bare feet slapping against the pavement.
The sun baked us that summer, turning our white skin brown. With my long, dark hair, almond eyes and sun-browned skin, I looked Native American. We pretended I was Pocahontas. I loved it. I lived it in my mind. My imagination was always running; I was a squaw, digging in the river for clams to eat and building a lean-to for shelter. Wherever I went I imagined I was Pocahontas, journeying across the wilderness.
The woods were small, they couldn’t have been more than 40 feet wide, if that. But to us they felt huge. Once we were in those woods, we could have been anywhere: Narnia, Teribithia, the Secret Garden, our own special place. We lived in our imaginations, always creating new worlds, new places. We built a fort, all contributing effort and materials, working together and doing it well. It was our secret place, a place to be free from adults. A place where we could make our own decisions and our own rules.
We took the canoe down the creek, from our backyard to our friend’s backyard. A ride of only several hundred feet, it was the world to us. We found secret paths back through the woods, through neighbors’ yards, and more woods, to our own backyard. We felt the exhilaration of running out of woods, onto clean grass, and back into woods again; the feeling of the air opening up around you, branches and leaves letting go, wind grabbing on, the sun hitting you in the face, then the shadows coming up and the trees embracing you again.
Summer was full of excitement and adventure, even though we hardly left the neighborhood. We were free that summer.
But when the summer ended, we had to go back to school. We scattered: my sister to her own school, all of the neighborhood kids to different schools, and me to my new Catholic school. I didn’t want to leave the woods behind, so I stayed there in my mind, in my imagination. I wandered down the halls of my school, but my mind was always someplace else. Back in the summer. Quickly the other kids labeled me an outcast. So I found lonely corners at recess, I hid in tire mazes and walked to the edge of the field by myself.
In the locker room, I felt for the first time the judgment and disdain of other girls. I learned about cliques. I felt eyes on my long, scrawny, brown, insect-bite covered arms and legs. I dressed quickly and sat at the edge of the gym until forced to participate. To escape, I became Pocahontas again. I was not in a gym full of mean kids, I was in a woods full of predators, fighting to stay alive and succeeding. I was a hero. I could do anything. But when the bell rang I was just me again. I sat at my desk and did as I was told, and even there I couldn’t make friends. I finished tests before most kids had gotten through the first question. The teacher loved me, but that made it all the worse.
At school I learned how to be alone. I learned that other people were cruel. I learned that I was different. I learned how to hide my feelings deep inside, where no one could get to them. I learned that success is measured by a letter, or a number, or a gold star. Some external, material marker, that you’ve done well enough, that you’ve pleased someone in authority, that you’ve met some arbitrary standard. I learned that popular girls don’t act smart and the boys like them better. I learned to walk a fine line between pleasing my teacher and not seeming like I cared. I learned to follow the rules and to leave my imagination behind.
In the woods, we learned that there was room for all of us. We learned how to share, how to create, how to build. We learned that a mud-covered stone is slippery and that the warm sun on your closed eyelids is one of the best feelings in the world. We learned the joy of making something with our hands. We learned about the nature of light, through the way the sun refracted through the trees, the way the leaves scattered the rays. We learned about the nature of life, watching the plants come up, grow, blossom, wither and die. We learned about aerodynamics through the way a leaf with more surface area took longer to fall. We learned how to get along, and how to resolve our differences. We smiled. We were happy.
I spent my summers in the woods, until I got older. But I spent much longer in school. And the lessons of the woods were soon buried under years of facts and data and social learning that stuck with me. I’m trying to draw on the lessons of the woods now, to let myself feel what I am, who I am. To remember what it’s like to imagine, to create worlds in my mind. To let myself know that people can be good and dreams can come true. I’ll try to teach Adeline those lessons, before school and cruel children can beat them out of her.
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