Out of the Woods

I was ten when I escaped Camp Honeyrock, a two-week sleep away camp somewhere in Wisconsin. I hated it. Hated the camp songs that somehow seemed like bosom buddy inside jokes I didn’t understand even though I’d sung them two billion times in one day. I hated eating food off trays and drinking “bug juice.” I hated the climbing apparatus that was called a spider’s web. (Why would I get on that? Everyone knows what happens to things that aren’t spiders that find themselves on their web.) I hated the bunk buds that smelled like pee.

Once, I was sitting on the steps of my cabin when one of my cabin mates sat down next to me with a letter in her hand. She was crying.

“My dog died,” she said, and held up the letter. “I just found out.”

I started to say I’m sorry when she rubbed her arm under her nose, took a shaky breath and began to read the letter from her mother. It was the saddest thing I ever heard and I don’t like or care about dogs. I’m afraid of them, in fact, but this letter was awful and sitting next to this sobbing girl and breathing that fresh country air I thought, “Holy shit. I gotta get out of here.”

So I hatched a plan. That afternoon, we were taking our 500th hike while singing “Kumbuya.” I would join my cabin, but I would make sure I was the last in line for the trek, and when nobody was looking, I’d leave.

The counselor led us through the lilies and the sunshine, and when she was far enough away, I pivoted and walked myself to the main office. I walked through the doors, ducked underneath a counter that campers were supposed to stay behind, found a phone, and called my mom.

“I want to come home,” I told her.

The next thing I remember is watching my family’s 1984 Dodge Caravan pull up while I stood on the dirt road with my sleeping bag. I remember my brother Geoff hopping out of the “way back,” the part of a minivan that today has a third seat, but in the 80s, when seatbelts were optional, Geoff and I considered this space our mobile playroom. “Look, Callie!” Geoff said pointing to his green football blanket he’d draped across the space between the backseat and the hatch, “I made a tent!”

Geoff’s voice is the end of that memory. What happened after that has faded into the normalcy of summer days in Oak Park: riding my bike and going to the pool, getting a swirl cone at The Hole in the Wall, or watermelon Italian ice at Gina’s. It’s my walk away from the woods that I remember the most, probably because I don’t have a long list of times when I acted this way. That is, decided I didn’t like something and left without worry that it is my fault I don’t like it.

I’ve been thinking about this memory, this girl I once was, over the last several weeks since I decided to resign from a teaching position. I’ve been dissecting every frame of that memory: Was I sad that I didn’t like camp? Did I think there was something wrong with me because I didn’t like nature or singing group songs? Was I nervous about my counselor getting mad at me because I ditched the group? Did my voice tremble when I heard my mom on the phone?

I don’t remember any of that. I remember being miserable and I remember doing something about it. I remember being sure and steady as I walked into the woods. I remember not giving a hoot whether I’d get in trouble or someone would get mad at me. I remember being determined.

I want that girl back – the girl who isn’t afraid to change her mind. The girl who says, “OK, you don’t like this. You thought you would but you don’t. What are you going to do about it?” The girl who doesn’t think at all about breaking a rule (or several) so she can get what she wants.

The night I decided to resign from teaching, I was sitting at the kitchen table across from Jesse, sobbing, something that had become routine over the last few months.

“If I was just more organized,” I said. “If I weren’t so shy. If I could only think faster.” On and on the list went, as it has since I started this job. I’m not this. I’m not that. I need to be better at this. I need to have more of that. This thinking reached a manic pitch: I couldn’t do this job so I was no good. I couldn’t do this job so I was worthless. I couldn’t do this job so I couldn’t do anything. I was ashamed to be me.

“Callie,” Jesse said, his voice breaking me from my dark reverie. “You wouldn’t want Hadley and Harper to put themselves through what you are putting yourself through.”

And just like that, my ten-year-old self sat up. She sat up, then she stood up. Then, she walked into the woods to find me and show me how to get home. I typed up a resignation letter. It was awkward and scary and sad but I thought of that girl I once was, and I thought of who I want my girls to grow up to be like, and I know it is up to me to show them.

I never want Hadley and Harper to talk about themselves the way I’ve been talking about myself. What’s more, I don’t want them believing this message: that they can’t change their mind. That they can’t say, “I don’t like this,” without worry there is something wrong with them or that they’ll upset someone. The night I resigned, Jesse gave me back a memory, and in turn, he gave me back a part of myself I’d lost.

Perhaps one day Hadley and Harper will need to know about the details of this particular teaching job, and I will tell them, but I will start with the little girl who found her way out of the woods.

“That’s you, Mama!” they’ll say. “You did that!”

“You are right,” I’ll say. “That’s me.”