When I was a student at Sequoyah Elementary School, I spoke so infrequently that my fellow students took to counting the number of words I had said to them each year on their fingers. Every once and a while, I would say something like okay, or sure, or no and they would run to their friends, wide eyed, holding up three fingers, She said another word!
This was the time when I began construction on the castle walls and moat that now stand around my heart. I drew pictures, and taught myself to believe that I would rather be on my own anyways. Outsider became part of my identity, but the hurt that accrued in all those friendless years affects my life and behaviors in powerful ways even now.
During free time in class I drew pictures of myself, alone in the jungle, or horses running alone on the plains. In the lunchroom I scraped the peanut butter off my peanut butter crackers and made tiny sculptures of cats and horses, wondering how it was that other kids could be so loud. During recess I sat alone at the edge of the playground, building tiny log cabins out of broken twigs. Every day, I hoped that this one wouldn’t get destroyed, but it always did.
One year, my school sent us off to Great Smoky Mountains Environmental Institute at Tremont, for an Environmental Education camp.
I had been camping plenty, so I wasn’t radically transformed by this contact with the woods. But one night, they took us on a flashlight-less Night Hike. The children gathered in a nervous group, clutching flashlights brought from home, flashing the beams around wildly – the gravel road, the canopy of leaves, each other’s faces – as though trying to take it all in one last time before the light was taken from them. I stood off to the side, holding a chunky yellow flashlight and trying to have a brave face about the whole thing. After all, I had been camping before, and I wasn’t anything like those other kids. I wasn’t scared of the woods.
But in truth, all I wanted was to grab a fistfull of someone’s T-shirt and not let go. I was terrified they were gonna forget about me out there in the dark woods, that I was gonna be left behind for good this time.
We were allowed to carry our flashlights, but were instructed not to switch them back on except in case of emergency. A few kids couldn’t handle the temptation, and had their flashlights confiscated.
If you have ever dared to turn off your flashlight in the woods at night, you will know that the forest develops like a photograph on the back of your eyes. Your senses can tell you more than you ever imagined and even some things made invisible by daylight. The group of boisterous and irreverent kids was transformed by the dark into a trail of attentive and agile creatures. We walked slowly, sensing. No one spoke louder than a whisper, as though the night was a presence so sacred we did not want to risk being discovered trespassing through it.
I followed the bobbing T-shirt draped across the shoulder blades of the kid in front of me, and listened for the steps that fell behind my own. Ahead, I could see that the trail bent to the left, and that there was some sort of obstacle in the path. As we approached, Jason – the coolest and most crushable kid in the whole third grade – stopped. He put his hand on top of a rusted pole sticking up at the bend in the trail, he turned back and whispered to us two words: watch out.
That gesture changed my heart.
Eventually we reached a clearing where we all sat in the grass, still clutching our dark flashlights, and listened for owls. We walked out of the woods. We turned our flashlights on, pointed them at the gravel, walked back to our cabins. The next day I still had no one to sit with at lunch, I still built my stick houses alone, still knew I didn’t belong, but I had seen something: for one moment, in the perfect wilderness of the forest dark, it hadn’t mattered. It hadn’t mattered that I didn’t dress well and didn’t talk like other kids and couldn’t play kickball, we had just cared for each other.
I have carried this knowledge like a precious stone in my heart for all these years, because in this moment lies my hope. That no matter how divided we may be in the light of day, no matter how thick and high the walls around our hearts; when we are walking in the darkest night, swallowed up by sacredness and mystery and terror, we can still reach out a hand, we can still say watch out, and we can still take care of each other.