Trashcans And Wallflowers
Copyright 2002 by Tyler Miller
My essay is about the experiences that I had as a counselor for a group of 6th grade students on their yearly trip to a remote mining village on Lake Chelan. The trip is both exciting and entertaining, and being a counselor for young kids is the most amazing thing I've ever done in my life. Kids have so much to teach us, if only we'll listen.
Lake Chelan, sparkling under the sun, rests in the heart of Washington State. The lake itself is fifty-five miles of pristine water, one of three such pristine lakes in the country. On one end lies the small tourist town of Lake Chelan. On the other end is the tiny community of Steheiken, which has no roads connecting it to the outside world, nor any telecommunication networks. Somewhere in-between, almost utterly alone, is Holden Village.
To get to Holden Village you must first travel forty miles, either by boat or plane, up Lake Chelan. Once you arrive at the boat landing, you step onto one of the buses owned by the Village. If you have never believed in God before, you will find yourself converted immediately. For in the next mile of travel you will be transported directly up 2,000 feet in elevation on dirt road switchbacks. The bus you will ride in was built before the birth of your grandmother, and is being held together by duct tape and dental floss. After prayers and repentances, the buses will travel on for another ten miles, bringing you deep into the mountains, and fully out of contact with the rest of the world.
Every year the Lake Chelan Middle School sends a group of one hundred sixth grade students, and twelve high school student counselors, to this remote location, not for spiritual conversion though, but rather for a unique educational experience. Holden Village was once one of the largest copper mines in the nation, and has now been relegated to a Christian retreat center with a staff of four hundred year round residents. The surrounding environment is a balanced blend of nature once gutted for a profit and now being carefully restored. It is the perfect place to get away from the world, away from the constricting academic atmosphere of one’s school, away from the clutches of one’s parents. It is a place for freedom, a place for fun, and, more than anything, a place to come to learn.
“But I thought no one was allowed to bring food up there.”
“Yeah, aren’t they vegetarians or something?”
“You mean there’s no meat up there? What are we supposed to eat? I hate broccoli.”
“So does everyone else. We bring our own food. I know you’ve been told you can’t, but that rule is for the kids. Counselors can bring whatever they want. Including food.”
“What else should we bring?”
“Is it really that cold up there? I heard it was really cold.”
“And what about showers? There’s going to be hot water right? I mean, I can’t handle this if there isn’t going to be any hot water. Not me.”
“And what about the kids? What should we know about the kids?”
And finally it is here that everyone turns to look at me. Before we leave for Holden, all of the high school counselors come together for a kind of team dinner. Every year new counselors are brought on board, and almost every year old counselors return to take the trip again. The dinner, which has become tradition, is a way of integrating the entire group. Bring in the new blood, and let everyone know what to expect. We eat, talk, and ask lots of questions.
This year, I am, essentially, in charge. This will be my third consecutive year as a Holden counselor. No other counselor currently sitting at the dinner table has more than one year under their belt. They are all looking to me, for advice, for wisdom, for guidance. Either that or they’re looking at a zit on my face, and being damn rude about it.
“Yeah, what should we know about the kids?”
I look up and down the half-troubled faces at the table. I smile.
“What should you know? Know this…unless you totally ignore them, you’ll learn far more from them than they’ll ever learn from you.”
And with that I sip my Coke, let it burn down my throat, and burp loudly.
On the second night of our trip we usually retreat to the Rec Hall, which is housed in one of the larger buildings in the Village. Inside the Rec Hall is a small bowling alley, half a dozen pool tables, multiple ping pong tables, and even a refreshment counter that serves lemonade and popcorn. There is also a rocking little jukebox with the most enormous selection of pre-modern rock I’ve ever seen. For four hours we pack all hundred plus kids into the Rec Hall, and let them loose.
Invariably the place explodes. The music is loud, the lemonade flows like a river, and endless competitions begin and end, begin and end. No sane person would sit this one out. No sane person could remain a wallflower in this whirlwind of hysteria. Yet, almost inevitably, I find someone who does. They are found sitting on the fringe, in one of the decrepit couches that line the walls. And almost always they are one of my team, one of the counselors.
At Holden, it is rarely the kids that I worry about. It is the counselors, and in turn, how the kids will react to the counselors. The process that one must go through to become a Holden counselor is quite selective, and almost always weeds out anybody who does not have the type of personality conducive to this environment. No system is perfect. And so here I am once again, discovering a wallflower in my midst.
There is something about kids that turns people off. Maybe it’s their lack of understanding of the ways of the world. Maybe it’s their lack of focus. Maybe it’s their height. Who knows? What I do know is that usually what keeps certain counselors stuck on the fringe is their inability to connect. They’re ignoring the kids. The sixth grade students have too much energy, too much exuberance; they laugh too much; they’re not, in a word, mature.
So I keep my eye on the wallflower, because you can’t force a person to become involved. Life is a game, you either play or you don’t.
Suddenly, the song on the jukebox shifts. It is something the kids recognize, something that not even Britney Spears or Ricky Martin could overshadow. It’s Creedence Clearwater, or something of that nature, and in an instant the kids are atop the pool tables. They are dancing with abandon, hands flirting with the ceiling, singing along, off key as usual.
The party has begun.
It is the morning of our last day in the Village. It is always cold in Holden, although the sun shines brighter here than it should, and as long as you stay in the sun you can remain comfortable. I’m sitting in the center of the Village, in what is called the pavilion. It is a large wooden deck, circling around a large tree, with a flower garden running along its outer rim. A wooden bench runs along the inside of the deck, and there are deep, wooden chairs scattered about. There is an elderly couple on the bench, and they are whispering to one another. I am sitting in one of the chairs, half asleep. As counselors, we don’t sleep in Holden. We have no time for it. So any extra moment to sit and stave off exhaustion is set upon with the utmost level of seriousness.
The air in Holden is still. It is quiet in a way that can not be achieved anywhere near civilization. It is a quiet that one can’t find anywhere else but deep in the mountains. It’s a quiet that is at once peaceful and settling, because it is not just a lack of noise, but a lack of the problems, strains and stresses of humanity. The paper arrives in Holden once a day. If you choose not to read it, you’ll never hear a word about the outside world. So, the quiet extends beyond the senses of your ears, and into the senses of your soul.
My eyes are closed.
The silence is shattered.
Up the hill from the pavilion is the lodge that all of the sixth grade boys, and their respective male counselors, sleep in. At that moment, I am certain that I am supposed to be up at the lodge, supervising my group of young men. Group time at Holden is divided into various periods in which the kids plan activities, work on projects, or lounge around. Regardless of what this current allotment of time is for, no doubt it is supposed to require my supervisory abilities. Well, I’m not up there. And the boys are banging on the trash cans. Loudly.
I open my eyes. Yes, I can see them from where I sit. It’s my group all right. None of the other counselors would dare to leave their group all alone. They are all still too cautious, which is not entirely a bad thing. Counselors need caution. However, there are perks that come with experience. One of them is knowing when you can leave your group to their own devices. Bang. Crash. Slam. Wham-bam. BANG!
They can’t carry a tune worth a damn, and I’m sure that every animal in a radius of fifteen miles is running scared. Maybe I shouldn’t have left them alone.
The old couple on the bench are staring at my group now. A look of disgust crosses their faces. They’re ears are not accustomed to the evolution of rock and roll, and I imagine it was their generation that was responsible for attempting to silence Chuck Berry, and in the process creating rock’s darkest era, from which sprouted such groups as The Everly Brothers. I eye this couple, and they turn their heads to look at me.
Their expressions say it all. I sit accused. Why don’t I go up their and stop such racket? What good am I, letting those boys carry on in such a manner? Maybe they’re right, but what good were The Everly Brothers?
Any mature counselor would have jumped from their seat by now, and raced up the hill, yelling and screaming and cursing and spitting. Me…I guess I’m not that mature. Let them bang. Let them crash. Let them do the tutti-frutti. For all I know, the next Ringo Starr is up there. They’re having a good old time, and you know what…no harm, no foul, right?
I glare back at the elderly couple, shrug my shoulders, tap my foot, and inside I feel sorry for them. Sorry that they’re so old. Sorry that they almost killed rock and roll. Sorry that they can’t remember a time when banging on a trash can was fun. They’ve lost that, buried it in layers of sunrises and sunsets, spring dawns and autumn dusks. It’s gone to them.
They’re nothing but wallflowers now.
I’m a voracious reader. I pick up anything and everything, and devour it as quickly as I can. I’ve read Shakespeare and Dante, Emerson and Thoreau, Poe and Lovecraft, Steinbeck and Hemingway, Faulkner, Jackson, Kafka, Bradbury, Sagan, Hawking, Plato, Aristotle, Miller, Trevor…the list goes on and on. I’ve read libraries of fiction, and rooms of philosophy and science and religion. I read magazines and newspapers, watch movies by the bundle. I pride myself on being a well rounded, and well informed young man.
And yet, I’ve learned more from a twelve year old boy than I’ve ever learned in all my years of reading, studying, and devouring knowledge. In dealing with kids, it is I who have become the student.
It is a cosmic joke when one discovers that up through adolescence, one knew more about enjoying life than they may ever know again. The body forgets, the mind suppresses, and the person conforms. The question isn’t of whether one must grow up, though. It is a question of whether one must forever abandon their heart of a child, that part of them that endlessly dreams and laughs and cries and delights in the world.
On the boat back to Lake Chelan, I sit on the upper deck, outside, near the rear of the boat. I sit, bundled in my warm jacket, watching the waves splash against the sides of the mountains. Cold, glacier air drifts through the valley. The counselors take turns bringing the kids outside onto the deck, so that they won’t rampage and riot below deck. It is my turn, and the kids are hocking loogies off the back end of the ship.
On my ears is a set of headphones. Playing a tune only I can hear, is Bruce Springsteen. I close my eyes, and smile. “Once I spent my time playing tough guy, see. I was living in a world of childish dreams. Someday these childish dreams must end, to become a man and grow up to dream again…”
I grew up in
Lake Chelan, in the state of Washington. I've been a writer all my
life, not often giving thought to any other profession. I am
currently a student enrolled at Eastern Washington University, where
I am working on getting degrees in both Creative Writing and
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