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At last we reached the hill that lead to the sweeping expanses of green playing fields, interrupted here and there with a field hockey goal or a lacrosse net, nestled against the tennis courts. I saw that what seemed like the entire school had turned out for the sunny afternoon, inhaling the scent of the freshly cut grass and mistaking it for freedom, away from the gaze of the teachers, deans, and other anonymous but still despised authority figures.
Girls in bathing suits, their bodies gleaming with tanning oil, were splayed on brightly colored towels, which looked like squares of candy from my lofty position on the hill above the fields. The shirtless boys were throwing footballs, or else the shafts of their lacrosse sticks were shining with sweat and sunlight. An enterprising student had brought down a small grill and was making hamburgers from the smell of it. At a meal later that week, the Dean of Students would ask us all to please not have open flame on the lower levels. The latest Top 40 hits blared from different iPod speakers scattered amongst the prone bodies.
I held up my hand as a visor and squinted through the afternoon sun. I was at the same time consumed with jealousy and disgust- a snarl curled my lip but my heart ached to join them. How I wished I had the long shining hair of the girls, the ease that they had in displaying their bodies, the athletic skills of the boys, the carelessness with which they treated their expensive sunglasses and the blissful denial of the inevitable avalanche of homework they should have been doing that day.
Simultaneously I pitied them and their ignorance of the skin cancer they were going to contract if they continued on this way, despised how they all were listening to the exact same songs and wearing the same brands, and thought scornfully of how they would later hoist the pictures of their lazy afternoon onto Facebook and title the album with some inside joke from that day.
I believed that I was much better than any of them, more intelligent, more individual, and more modest. But with conviction I knew that I yearned to join them and be one of them, yet would never be able to do either, being not from Connecticut or New York or old money.
I lowered my hand, accepted the hierarchy that had been intrinsic ever since my first day at the school, ever since I had chosen my friends and the way I cut my hair and wore my clothes, and walked down the hill with S and F.
F and I, freshmen, having never been to the river, followed S, a sophomore, deeper and deeper into the woods that surrounded the river. With each step, the din from the crowd on the fields became quieter, muffled, until the only sounds were the crinkling of leaves underfoot and the cracking of branches as S pushed through thickets. We reached a large dead tree trunk, white and pitted with black spots. I thought it was an Aspen tree, and this reminded me of home, where the ivory white groves dotted the mountainsides. I sat down on the fallen tower of bark and F joined me.
“Want to hear my acapella audition song?” S asked us tentatively. My curiosity was instantly piqued. He was never nervous to sing- in fact, most of the time I had to ask him to stop, it became so incessant. F and I both responded with enthusiasm.
S jumped up on the highest part of the trunk, the drama queen that he was. He took a deep breath and began to sing. As the melody fell from his lips, I looked up at him, the sun filtering through the canopy of trees and glowing off his dark hair, creating a halo effect. He finished and slithered down from the tree just as the sweet, acrid smell of something illegal reached us through the trees.
“Probably G and his band of merry woodsmen,” S scowled. “Let’s go.” As we plunged deeper into the forest, F’s lack of usually constant speech led me to believe she also craved the quiet and solitude that S and I seemed to be looking for. At last we reached the banks. S tightened the straps of his backpack and put one foot into the river. He cringed. “Freezing,” he grimaced.
I rolled up my pants to halfway below my knees and waded in. S was struggling upstream, fighting the current. Crossing was a very difficult business. The stones were smooth, covered with moss, underfoot, and to balance on the rounded things you had to both shift your weight to avoid getting tipped by the current and grip your shoes onto your feet using your toes. With each lifting of your foot, you ran the risk of tipping over, as F discovered when she took the icy plunge first. She nearly floated away, small and lithe as she was. Luckily her short stint on the varsity swimming team seemed to have taught her something, because she regained her balance, but unfortunately lost both of her shoes in the process. It was a real workout, like walking through drifts of snow, pushing and straining all the while.
It was also brutally cold, most of the water running through it having come from the melted snow up in Vermont and Maine. After a few minutes my legs and feet were tingling with the numbness, and then it began to feel warm. It felt good to submerge myself in a physical task I knew I could complete, and we were too focused to speak to each other, so the only sounds were the rushing of the river and the occasional splash as one of us lost their footing. When this happened the other two would grip the fallen one by the upper arms and hoist them to their feet again.
I threw myself on the bank, sopping wet, after the other two. None of us said anything for a moment as we got our breath back, filling our lungs with the thick river air and our eyes with the fresh blue sky above. The damp rocks pressed into my back and then we commenced the documenting with our digital cameras, the rock skipping that was unavoidable, the exploring of the bank.
S climbed a tree that stuck out over the river like a cannon. Its branches, blackened from when the river rose in floods, or rain, shot off in odd directions like bullets. He told me to take a picture, then balled himself up and hurled his body into the river, jumping far out so that he wouldn’t hit the bottom painfully. I gaped as ripples radiated from his point of entry, then his dark head surfaced, hair matted to his scalp, a smile shining from his face. “It’s fun,” he said. “You should try it.” Some might think this was a suggestion, but I knew S wouldn’t leave the river until all of us had jumped.
F eagerly scrambled up the tree. I watched from below as her leg muscles contracted and strained as she scrabbled at the bark, then she jumped as well and they were both floating in the river, their bobbing heads turned expectantly towards me.
I didn’t want to look a coward, but I had never been a thrill seeker. I hated roller coasters, diving boards, even skiing, although I was on the racing team, because of the unpleasant feeling your stomach gave off when it lifted away. Yet I was pushed towards the trunk by some great force of will that my friends were giving off. Slowly, I set my camera atop my shoes and re-cuffed my pants before beginning the climb.
It was easy, with many smaller branches serving as foot- and handholds, like climbing a ladder. This made me even more nervous- it was as if nature had conspired to torture me. I experienced vertigo at the pinnacle of the tree, looking down at the shimmering water below for a brief moment before my head started to swirl. I gripped the trunk nervously and forced myself to put one foot in front of the other on the narrow ramp to my death. I felt like a prisoner of pirates, walking the plank.
The jump seemed much higher from up there. I stood for a long time. The river distorted my sense of time, and it could have been either a minute or an eternity that I was locked into position there, my hands like vises on the branches forming a “y” from the large one I was standing on. I tried and tried to force myself to jump but I was frozen by fear. I wasn’t sure what I feared- the soaring sensation of my stomach would only be momentary, I knew that. And I would surely not die from the little jump, both of my friends had made it fine. All I knew was that I was paralyzed. I seemed to have developed a block towards jumping. In a few seconds it could all be over, the jump completed, I told myself as I inched closer and closer to thin air.
“JUMP!” F and S shouted from the bank. “Come on, jump already!”
I steeled myself. Ice was pouring into my stomach. I curled my toes around the rim of the branch, like a professional diver. A few seconds, I repeated to myself. Get it over with and I would never have to do it again. And two steps later and I was falling through thin air, forgetting to straighten my legs or arms, the wind snatching my scream away.
It was over in the blink of an eye as I plummeted into a green, reed-filled world, the cold rush bringing me back to my senses. Peace settled in me, calm and cool like the river. I swam back to the bank with a breaststroke, the water streaming between my fingers and toes.
As I hauled myself to solid ground I caught a glimpse of my arms. They glistened, rinsed clean by the river water.