The night before my first day of “Teen Camp” the summer between 6th and 7th grade I stayed up late working on a very important project: Making myself look cool. I gathered all of the simple neon rope bracelets I had. I broke out the whiteout pen and drew symbols and words on my backpack; a Yin Yang, a peace symbol. I drew faces on my sneakers. Anything to make this be the anti-first day of school. Anything to help me fit in with a camp full of kids I hadn’t met before.
And the next morning my bus never arrived.
Which meant an hour and a half after I should have been picked up, a staff member came to my house in his white Chevy Lumina to drive me to camp where 50 rowdy teenagers had been sitting on a bus waiting for the new kid to show up. It meant I had to do that dreaded walk. The one down the aisle of the school bus, head swiveling from side to side, trying to find an open seat next to a friendly face.
A pubescent gauntlet that, even today, constricts my chest thinking about it.
I have always had high hopes for the first day of anything. My default resting state is overly excited. By the time I was in Junior High, the morning on the first day of school meant a 20-minute aggressive negotiation between me and my hair. My hair was everything. I used ecologically catastrophic amounts of fluorescent gel with progressively larger degrees of “hold.” It came in tubes, in bottles, in 60 oz jars. I didn’t have the language back then to verbalize the correlation between hair perfection and confidence, I just knew it was really important to me. In the time of uncontrollable puberty, hair mastery was omnipotence.
And yet it did not mean I made more friends than I would have otherwise. It did not prevent me from being teased. I did not grant me instant significance from those whose respect I coveted.
When I moved to Arizona for college I packed up two huge duffle bags full of pictures and albums. One might have thought I was off to 4 years of solitary confinement on a distant moon and not my first semester of college. Books of memories were identity creating proof of my existence as I arrived on campus ready to begin, what everybody had told me, would be the best years of my life.
Ten days later I was in the hospital.
But whether it was camp or school or the first day at any of the jobs I started in my life, there is always that feeling within me, how do I prepare for an event that could be life changing? Perhaps it’s the wrong question. Maybe the event itself is not a catalyst, but a reflection, an indicator of a life already changed.
Of course, it is not what I wear or how I look that determines how I start something, or how my experience transpires. But it is always interesting to reflect back on what I thought was important at the moment, what I missed, and what I gave too much attention to.
Each of these beginnings was a very clear reflection of what I was looking for. Each piece of my life received the attention I hoped would sure me up against the insecurity of a future I wanted so badly to embrace, but could not control. It is never that simple.
Feelings of control and release. Prescience and improvisation. There is no right answer, no perfect preparation for life, but part of me will always think there is.
Around the time of all this high school self-creation, a movie came out about a bunch of people throwing a rave. It was called “Groove.” And one line from the trailer pops up in my head every now and again.
Ya know, everyone here knows what’s going to happen to you, so whatever you need to do, feel free.
We can’t know what others are thinking, anticipating or expecting of us. Or if they are doing any of these things at all. I always thought people cared more than they did, which made me care more than I needed to, which meant a kind of observational inertia that kept me planted but not grounded.
That summer of camp ended up being the greatest of my young life. Every year of High School was a tumble dryer of highs and lows, hormones and emotions. College was two years of adapting to a new reality, and then two years of actually enjoying it. Each of these experiences was never quite what I tried to make them, but they were certainly far more formative, more valuable to who I was becoming.
The event can be as much life-changing as a reflection of a life changed. Each new beginning finds me halfway between the two. The journey has already started. The journey is just beginning. Neon bracelets and hair gel be damned.
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