Editor’s Note: This post is a personal essay written for Colette Weber’s sophomore English class. From the assignment: “Philip Lopate in The Art of the Personal Essay sees the hallmark of the personal essay as its intimacy. He says, ‘The writer seems to be speaking directly into you ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue—a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.’”
by Sydney Johnson ’17
On a rainy January day, I took a walk. I found myself wandering to the remains of what we used to call “the George School tree,” but now we call “the stump.” The limbs of the ancient mammoth had embraced the school for years. But when sickness struck our school’s organic mother, she had to be chopped. All that remains is an obtrusive stump: a constant reminder of the friend that we killed. The spirit of the tree has not risen to the Heavens. It still lingers ghostly around its roots, which could never be removed.
The spirit called me to join her. I lay down on the elevated stump and was surprised to find it comfortable despite its damp condition. I could feel my heart rate slow, my breath even, and my muscles relax. It was as if the care that the tree had always put into the school was now focused on only me.
My eyes closed and I listened to the spirit’s whisperings. Far away, cars on the street sped past. The sound of rumbling engines came and went consistently with a familiar pattern. Above the trunk, late geese raced to the South. Their cries carried frightening, but soothing tones.
For the entirety of my life, the beach surrounded me. Any which direction I went would soon resolve in the Atlantic Ocean. Overall, the time I’ve spent lying on the beach must sum to weeks. The simplicity of lying on a beach provokes complex sensations. You let the sun permeate first through your exposed skin, then let the heat inside. All the while the sound of crashing waves lull you to relaxation, and the call of the seagulls keep you in this world, where you are but one of the pieces. By the time you leave, you have created a core of warmth within yourself that will never fully leave you.
For some odd reason, I felt this same sensation on the stump. Though the temperature was fifty degrees cooler and cold droplets of mist floated in the damp air, I could feel my core recharging. One cold gust of gentle wind hit me from the right. I opened my eyes to look into it. Inside a sea of thick and eerie fog, I could see a silhouette of the barn. A horse who was unaffected by the chill stood and took it in.
The horse’s apathetic response reminded me of the horses by my home. I live in the forest. A five minute walk in any direction could take me to one of three farms that surround my house. My favorite barn, Farmer Honey’s, will soon fall apart. In the corner of a two acre barren field lies their crooked barn, right next to the equally crooked house that Farmer Honey and his wife lived in. On an average day, you can see a horse, donkey, or an occasional mule standing right next to the electric fence. Two hounds who’ve dedicated their lives to protecting the old barn appear whenever a person finds themselves within 20 yards of the fence. They bark thunderously, but the other animals never seem to be disturbed, turning their back and pretending the disruption doesn’t exist. I wonder if they even know of Farmer Honey’s death. He died five years ago. His widow runs it now, but we still call it “Farmer Honey’s farm.” On the Island, we resist change.
The damp air was refreshing to breathe. Rain has the ability to rinse the air of all the lingering scents of the past. With each breath, my stomach moved up and down, and my back pushed down and up. My back was cold, despite the relative comfort. When I inhaled, my back pushed against the trunk, against the sad remains of the tree. The underground roots chilled me, and, like the horses by my house, I tried to pretend it wasn’t really there, that it wasn’t really a problem, but it was.
Sometimes, a change in perspective can turn a lovely thing to a horrid thing in the blink of an eye. Your perspective can be flipped rightside-up in a matter of seconds after it had been upside-down for years. The Island had never been anything but a dream. As a child, I saw a home that provided safety and comfort and community, and never asked any further questions. I had been looking at a magnificent curtain my entire life. I never knew that standing behind that thin veil I would find drug addiction, domestic abuse, poverty, and depression. Coming to the realization that my idea of home had always been imagined did not happen overnight. The sickness of my home slowly uncovered itself, like a trail of breadcrumbs that led to a bag of abandoned heroin in a park (the headliner that opened the summer). I first had this idea of imperfection in seventh grade, when my parents sent me to the mainland for school. Why would they have to do this? A corrupt public education system. Soon, I started seeing pictures on social media of my elementary school friends smoking, drinking, and indulging in sexual activity in eighth grade. All at once, my parents stopped hiding the darkness from me: “Did you hear about your old shop teacher? He was arrested for rape!” “The word is that there are three pregnant girls in the public high school.” “Your friend Alex’s sister was arrested for manslaughter yesterday.” That was when I knew I had to get out of the tiny little world that I never before had understood.
The fleeing geese honked. Upset, tired, and scared, they flapped their wings knowing that they could not give up. They couldn’t stay any longer without facing danger. If they were to stay in Pennsylvania, they would freeze or starve. Their home had nothing to offer them. Without the resources to thrive, they had no option beside fleeing south. Together, they organized themselves to find their destination.
My southward destination was a Quaker school that my mom had gone to in the early eighties. It takes about six hours to drive to school from home, and that doesn’t include the boatride. On labor day, 2013, my family and I woke up early in the morning to make it to Newtown, PA before the day ended. We disembarked the ferry, fully prepared for the journey, confident that we had left nothing of mine behind. But I had left a lot behind: the friends that I had spent my entire life making and keeping, the community that had raised me just as much as my own parents, and the security blanket that I had been covered in for the past fourteen years. That said, I would soon live in a place where I would not be starved of opportunity. I could meet new people who weren’t stir crazy. My feet would be firmly planted in a ground stronger and larger than that of my home. There were no other islanders that I could take this step with, but around the globe, hundreds of strangers simultaneously hopped on to planes or trains or cars, and we all faced toward the same little school in the same little town, where I would meet them less than 24 hours later.
It only took the school 24 hours to plant a new tree after chopping down the old one. Once the Katsura sapling matures, the heart of the GS tree will move in. The tree stands only a couple yards to my left, and in the year that it’s been on campus, it’s grown a remarkable amount. I like to imagine how far its roots have grown. I find it hard to believe that they could avoid being entangled in those of the old tree, but I suppose that can’t be too bad if they do. The lights from my dorm shine through the thin branches of the Katsura. Inside each window is the life of a person who I love dearly, a member of my second family.
Arriving at George School, I had expected that integrating myself into the community would come easily, an assumption that got me through the summer without dying of anxiety. I tried to confidently go out and make friends, but was surprised to find that my entire grade had already met at the Academic Summer Program. All of my pent up fears arose, and I would soon find myself hiding in my room, avoiding any and all unnecessary contact. That was the sad planting of my George School seed. But as I drew myself out, the seed began to burst with life. The more people I touched, the longer each stem grew. My roots expanded until I found myself firmly planted in the place that had somehow become my new home.
As the temperature had begun rapidly dropping, I decided it must be time to head back inside. I stood up and prepared to trek up the steady incline toward my dorm. When I walked, the toes of my boots got wet. The rain that had settled in the grass only grabbed on to me as I tried to push them away. The sweet little memories of the rain soaked through the tips of my boot, and I knew that keeping them away was not an option, so I continued on while letting the water get closer to me. When I reached the dorm, I looked down to find that my boots looked as if their toes had been dipped into the ocean for only a quick second. Long enough for them to become one with the water, but not so long that they had drowned in their submergence. Not so long that they couldn’t recover.