Open the Heart of an American Teenager

Amanda Fox24 Mar, 2011
Honorable Mention: Instructor Story

I have at last come full circle, though it has been a process of realization and understanding that has taken most of adolescence and early adulthood. I should start by saying that I am writing from a small hotel perched high on a cliff above the sometimes tranquil, but more oftentimes white-capped waters of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. I watch the sun rise every morning above the volcano visible from my left-most window and the sun set every night behind the volcano visible from my right-most window. In between, I run, read, write, and reflect upon these past months of journeying throughout Central America as a faculty member with a traveling American boarding school—aptly named The Traveling School.

You might be saying about now: what is all this talk about Guatemala and The Traveling School—this is supposed to be a story about an experience at Adventure Treks! I promise I’ve not forgotten the story that I am supposed to share with these words. But because I grew up at Adventure Treks; because I have watched as my students have grown up at Adventure Treks; and because I am in Guatemala, right now, in a hotel perched high on a cliff rather than bent over a desk in a nondescript cubicle in a mundane office building in Manhattan or Boston or Los Angeles, overlooking traffic jams and crowds of people below, because of all of that, I can’t tell you You see, every memory I have and every friend—instructor and student—from whom I have learned important lessons throughout my thirteen year history at Adventure Treks is indelibly etched into every decision I have made since I was thirteen—since I ran into the one and only John Dockendorf at a camp fair (long before the internet rendered camp fairs obsolete) in Atlanta, GA and returned that very same afternoon, completed application in-hand. As Camus said and as I am so often reminded by the life I have led these past years, “one’s work is nothing but the slow trek, to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”

I can recall with crystalline clarity the images that first opened my heart to a life given to community and shared experiences—a life that transcends the individualism and totalizing competition that typifies American society. Image one: climbing mountains, rafting rivers, spending hour after hour wandering down trails in California, Washington, and Alaska, deep in conversation with those whom I have laughed and come to love in but a matter of weeks. I am thirteen, fourteen, fifteen then. During the school year I am anxious, high-strung, and high-achieving—hell-bent on gaining admission into the best college I possibly can. I sleep little, work lots, and look-forward, often, to summer days when I can leave all of this behind, when what I achieve and where I am going doesn’t matter at all compared to what I am sharing and who I am, at that very moment. Image two: climbing mountains, rafting rivers, spending hour after hour wandering down trails in California, Washington, and Alaska, deep in conversation with those whom I have laughed and come to love in but a matter of weeks. I am twenty-one, twenty-two…twenty-six. Now, rather than having those experiences created for me, I help to create the experience. Now, rather than being fully immersed in the simple magic of being outdoors with young people, I often find myself stepping back and watching their joy as they are fully immersed—feeling, each time, a deep sense of appreciation and contentment. This is my happiness and that is my heart—opened and full. During the school year, I am a patient, albeit demanding Assistant Coach at the University of Virginia, a committed graduate student, and as previously mentioned, a faculty member with The Traveling School. I am relaxed, assured, filled with curiosity and wonder, always eager to seek opportunities that will take me to far corners of the world.

This will be my tenth summer at Adventure Treks and the laughter and magic of my youth fits like a sheer silhouette over the laughter and magic of my nascent adulthood. Is that Hannah’s joy at summitting a mountain or my own—Nick’s poignant plus and timely delta or mine? I close my eyes and remember John McDermott, river-guide extraordinaire telling me to slow down, breathe deep, feel the rush of the waters of the Kalamath. I remember Dock telling me with sincerity when I was thirteen on the last day of my very first trip that I would one day be an Adventure Treks instructor—and eight years later being shocked and deeply appreciative that his prophecy had come true. I remember endless games of ultimate Frisbee, dancing on top of the U-haul, piling twelve people into one tent (sorry Dock…Rob…Dmac!). I remember playing camoflauge on islands only un-submerged during low-tide in Prince William Sound, Alaska and I remember from many a semi-catastrophe that pizza and ice cream can solve just about anything. I remember feeling and knowing, very distinctly, that helping to build and be part of kind communities and committing, daily, to being my best self were pursuits far more satisfying and worthy than individual accomplishment, than winning, than seeking high-profile jobs or promotions or exorbitant end of year bonuses. But remember, I said it has been process of realization and understanding that has taken most of my adolescence and early adulthood. I experienced college, one competitive day after another as an elite athlete with the University of Virginia Women’s Rowing Team. We won championships and I felt relieved, but usually the peace of mind that immediately accompanied those accomplishments was fleeting. I seriously considered a career as a lawyer, feeling a desperation to earn grades that would allow me to me gain entry into the best law schools so that I could join the best law firms and make partner at one of them by the time I was thirty.

I didn’t know then that the seeds had already been planted and had taken root. I didn’t know that all of my rationalizations for “taking time before starting law school” and “traveling while I was able,” were my subconscious understandings that such a life would never be rewarding or fulfilling in comparison to what I had known when I was young. And so I pursued the only paths that felt viscerally true and later proved to hold cerebral traction—summers and a fall at Adventure Treks, coaching, traveling—working with young people. My energy, passions, and work ethic were channeled to a far greater purpose than that which I could imagine or find words to give shape to and I fully understand now that I am in Central America and have spent time in communities bound by communalidad—a Spanish word for which we do not have the English equivalent. Communalidad is looking at another and seeing yourself, of feeling their joy as your own, their pain as your own. Communalidad is sharing what you have (no matter how great or little it is), celebrating uniqueness and honoring the efforts of individuals for the ways in which those efforts serve and strengthen the communities to which they belong and take part. Communalidad extends to the natural world and does not draw distinction between peoples and the lands that grow and sustain them. Communalidad is balance and respect. Communalidad is what I long ago learned and once practiced in summer months and have, quite unknowingly, come to practice everyday as I have grown into adulthood and have come to understand the choices I have made and why.

Thank you Adventure Treks. Thank you Dock and every instructor and student with whom I was swept-away on a rip-roaring romp of an adventure as an outlandish teenager and every instructor and student with whom I have continued to be swept-away on a rip-roaring romp of an adventure as a nascent adult. Thank you for giving me, summer after summer, the enduring images that first opened my heart and for all of the sublime moments and experiences I have had since on my slow trek back to rediscovering. Thank you, quite simply, for showing me the life that I love and giving me the understanding to go out and live it.

Chrissie M.

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