Part of WFYI's local activities around the new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, Hemingway, the Truest Sentence is a series of commissioned works from local authors. Chaperone by Lili Wright is an essay. Find additional pieces at the Hemingway activities page.
by Lili Wright
In a fit of motherly guilt, I signed up to chaperone my daughter’s fifth-grade fieldtrip to a wilderness park in southern Indiana. The numbers were daunting: 2,500 acres, 160 children, 40 chaperones, 85 degrees, 95 percent humidity, three days, two nights, not a single glass of white wine.
“You have to go,” my friend Diana said. A mother of four, Diana is my parenting role model. She plays in the mud. She asks kids open-ended questions to stimulate brain growth. She urges children to make good choices instead of using my default pedagogical approaches—scolding and guilt.
“You’ll learn a lot,” Diana said. “You have no idea.”
The goal of the weekend was to get kids off screens and into nature for a wholesome, outdoors adventure. The class would live as a community, share and learn and grow together. For many kids, spending time in nature was not at all natural. As one teacher confided, some fifth graders had never hiked in the woods. Many got no exercise. They ate dinner in front of the TV. They didn’t know how to pass a bowl of spaghetti.
I listened, thinking: Surely, it can’t be that bad.
When the school buses rolled into camp, parents were given two simple directives. Participate. And if you need to smoke, give the counselor a wink-wink and sneak behind the bus.
For our first hike, we traipsed off to a lake. Our trail group, the Coyotes, had twelve kids. Several wore blank expressions of boredom or loss. One boy sported a T-shirt that read: Perfect Parent: No homework until your video games are done.
Our trail guide, a young woman named Naoko, illustrated the dangers of pesticide runoff by building a town of rocks and spraying it with red water. The kids had questions.
“Can we roll down that hill?”
“When can we go canoeing?”
Naoko taught the kids to tie a slipknot.
“That’s interesting,” said one boy in an oversized cap.
“What would be interesting,” his chunky friend said, “is if I stole your hat.”
A polite kid in a crewcut piped in: “I’m ready to go now, Ma’am.”
Into the sticky woods, we staggered, chanting repeat-after-me songs. “Everywhere we go. People want to know. Who we are. So we tell them. We are the Coyotes . . . Last verse, same as the first, but a little bit louder and a whole lot worse.”
A freckled girl in a visor turned to me, breathless. “I must have lost 15 pounds by now. That’s what my Mom says.”
During a water break, my daughter, Madeline, chastised me about the hideousness of my fanny pack. I pointed to a male chaperone who had committed the same fashion faux pas.
Madeline shook her head. “He’s a dad.”
As we marched single file, another parent composed her own repeat-after-me song or maybe it was a rap. “Can you put the rock down? Put the rock down. Put it down. Down. Down now!”
Dinner was served in a mammoth cafeteria. Over the din, a counselor yelled chore instructions into a microphone. The “hopper” for each table fetches the fried chicken. The “scraper” scrapes uneaten food into a Yuck Bucket. All yuck was weighed on a scale and recorded, tangible proof of our waste. Our goal was to reduce our yuck to zero.
With the commotion, the salad bar carnage, the sucking of chicken bones, the little hands fondling dinner rolls until they found the fluffiest one, I lost my appetite. It was time to step up and parent. I told one girl to stop licking her plate. I corrected a boy’s grammar. In a world of heathens, I became Emily Post.
All told, our school generated a whopping 15 pounds of yuck, mostly milk and salad. A counselor in a bandana and red goatee broadcast the news, his voice sober, condemning, a hippy Cotton Mather: “We all play a part in the collection of yuck.”
That night, our cabin roiled with drama. One girl was inconsolable after her best friend dumped her. Pearl lost her Bible. The cabin was infested with ants. Only one bathroom stall had a working lock. Throughout the chaos, my friend Jun, a classics scholar, sat in her bunk engrossed in Danmei , a popular genre of gay love stories written for women.
“It’s quite erotic,” she said.
We mothers stared longingly at the pages, wishing we could read Chinese.
Ten o’clock. Tick check. Lights out. Girls swung between bunkbeds. No one slept. Shining my flashlight like a prison guard, I patrolled the barracks growling a repeat-after-me song without melody. It’s time to go to bed. Climbing into my upper bunk, I inserted the earplugs I’d bought at the gun shop at Wal-Mart. I wanted a glass of wine. I wanted to wink-wink behind the bus.
Come morning, all seventeen girls lined up to pee except the one who’d wet her bed. I dragged her sodden sleeping bag across camp to the laundry. In furtive whispers, exhausted parents shared horror stories: The boy camper who said: “You can’t tell me what to do. My dad is the sheriff.” The girl whose mother forgot to pack her anti-psychotic drugs and became convinced she was a werewolf.
“If you need morning medications,” the director announced at breakfast, “please meet your teacher outside the building."
Half the room rose to leave.
Forking my cold eggs, I was struck by a wave of sadness. Nature couldn’t soothe these children. How could a sparrow compete with video games or compensate for the tolls taken by poverty, broken families, substance abuse, and the myriad stresses of modern-day life? It wasn’t easy to be outdoors with the bugs and the heat, and we were a society that prized comfort. We had cut out all irritants and invaders only to discover the world we had made—and passed on to our children—wasn’t the utopia we had imagined. We’d cultivated ourselves out of the woods and now it was hard to doubleback.
Last day. Last hike. Major hill. Progress slowed. Mosquitoes swarmed. From the back of the line, I uttered an exasperated “Chop-chop.” Another mother whipped around and hissed, “Shush.” Then I saw why: up ahead, an overweight girl was struggling to climb a muddy hill. She was literally stuck, tangled in a fallen tree, grasping a flimsy branch, overcome by weight and gravity. Her shorts were falling down, exposing the crack of her wide behind.
My heart collapsed and I saw myself for who I was: the world’s worst chaperone, snarky instead of kind, judgmental instead of sympathetic, impatient when I should have slowed down. We all play a part in the collection of yuck. A good guide doesn’t disparage her charges. She leads them to higher ground. That brave girl was climbing the hill for all of us. She was a symbol, a hero, a fifth-grade saint. These kids just needed a small success in nature. A pretty view, a surmounted summit, could open up a new world of peace and possibility. Maybe. Maybe.
As the girl teetered on the ragged slope, the Coyotes howled encouragement.
I joined in. “You got it.”
And I called out, “Looking good.”
And I thought: We’re almost there.
Lili Wright is the author of the novel, Dancing with the Tiger, an Edgar finalist for Best First Novel, and the travel memoir Learning to Float. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Good Housekeeping, and Down East. She is a professor emerita from DePauw University and an adjunct instructor in the MFA program at Butler University. You can find out more about her at her website.