July 3rd 2013
Recently, I had the honor and privilege of taking our graduating seniors up to the Saranac Lakes in the Adirondacks of New York for their Senior Rites of Passage, a paddling trip in which students spend a lot of time thinking about their life, who they are now, and who they want to be as they take on new adventures after high school. The trip culminates with an overnight solo camp on an island for each student, during which they write a letter from their 50 year old self to their current self as well as a mission statement for their life.
My canoe partner for the week was Maria, one of our seniors, who is just about the cheeriest person you could ever hope to meet. Her giggle is infectious and she has an overwhelming love for her two year old son Eli that shines out of her when she tells stories about him.
On our first night on the Rites of Passage, Mr. C asked each student to answer this question: “What one thing in your life do you want to leave behind as you graduate and take your next steps?” When it was Maria’s turn to answer, her reply was that she wanted to be better with time management, because with her son and responsibilities at home, she often missed class or didn’t complete her schoolwork. She talked about how she has to work on that as she enters Camden County College this fall.
To tell you the truth, Maria’s answer made me angry. Did I know that she often missed class because of responsibilities with Eli? Yes. However, I also know that I’ve witnessed Maria’s boyfriend back out on taking care of Eli or picking Maria up from school, so time management on Maria’s part isn’t necessarily what needs to change. It scared me that she might actually believe that she could fix the fact that she missed class simply by managing her own time better, and that she might believe that she was supposed to go it alone in taking care of Eli. It scared me to think that she was unconsciously resigning herself to a life of making up for other people’s shortcomings, as so many women in Camden do.
The next day, while we were paddling through what I’m convinced is one of the most beautiful places on this earth, I asked Maria one question: “Who does all the work in taking care of Eli?” Her answer was very straightforward and matter of fact. “Oh I do, Julia. My boyfriend just goes to work and comes home.” With that answer, I dropped the subject, praying she would mull over why I asked that one question while she was out on her island with a whole 24 hours to think. If the idea of this trip was for her to come of age and contemplate her entry into life after high school, I wanted to see what answers she would find without me giving my opinions.
Dropping her off at her island, I felt assured in her ability to take seriously her assignments and to understand our intent in leaving her to fend for herself overnight. What made me hopeful was not that she was well-prepared in terms of camping skills (which she was, don’t worry), but the sense of peace that I saw come across her face as we paddled away from her. The beauty of this trip is that once you leave the students on their island, all you can do for them is pray. So I prayed that she would look at this “time management” phrase she had used and dive into the underlying causes of those issues.
The next night was our final night together, the night of the actual Rites of Passage ceremony. The Trekkers had all come back victorious from their islands, and they were sharing their letters to themselves around the campfire. When it was Maria’s turn to read, the sincerity in her nervous, timid voice gripped my attention. She began to read her letter with all of her hopes, dreams, and advice for herself and for Eli, and then she said the one thing that I had prayed would cross her mind. She read, “Maria, I pray that [her boyfriend] has grown into the man he needs to be and loves you and Eli.”
In the echo of those words, tears started rolling down my cheeks. I realized that as we leave the Rites of Passage trip behind, Maria will be going back to the reality of her parenting arrangement, and that reality will be a harsh force against the words she wrote. But in that moment of clarity on her island, Maria secured something for herself and for her son, and she put it in writing. She secured her right to reliable people to surround and love her and her son. She recognized that no parent, no person, should ever have to go it alone. It is my deepest wish for Maria that she hold on to that fact for the rest of her life.
Keep on trekking,