When my friends strayed off the nature center trail to explore the thicket, I made up an excuse to stay back. All that brush, it would surely set off my allergies. I took a few steps, edged up to a branch and rubbed my eyes to prove it.
I take pills for that, you know. I’d better stay here.
A health condition bought more social clout than childish fear. But the truth? I was afraid of the wood ticks.
I’d already been to the nurse’s office once that Spring, gripping the arms of a cold steel chair while she coaxed out the tick with a little squirt of oil and a sharp pair of tweezers.
Everyone knew the woods were crawling with them. Besides, there were rules about leaving the path.
I’ve forgotten how long I stood there, drawing shapes in the dirt with my feet and listening for my friends to come back. Maybe it was just minutes. Perhaps a full hour.
Little girl legs exposed between my shorts and sneakers were ripe for the sting of mosquitoes as I slapped back the gnawing realization that my friends were not coming back. When they discovered the clearing on the other side of the brush, they forgot I’d stayed behind.
I was no longer part of a third grade field trip.
I don’t remember the panic of being lost. And I don’t remember if I set off in search of my friends or froze on the trail waiting for someone to come for me.
I do remember the humiliation of being found.
A teacher I did not recognize escorted me to the main building. She seemed to know who I was without asking.
My own teacher, my class, my bus had already left.
They didn’t wait for a stray. There were flashcards to review.
They went off the path. We’re supposed to stay . . . on the path. I was sneezing . . . wood ticks . . . we’re supposed to stay . . .
I stopped talking. My combined fear of insects and of going outside the lines seemed to evoke more contempt than pity. So I took interest instead in the burrs tangled in my untied shoelaces.
Without a word, the woman pointed to a waiting school bus, already stacked with other kids I did not know. I crept up the tall steps and slipped into the first empty row, pressing myself hard into the corner.
If I could fade into the seat cushion, the other kids — the ones who already knew where they were — would have no one to point at while they whispered to one another.
I found myself more alone in a bus load of 66 children than on a dirt path in the middle of the woods.
Of course, it was growing familiar, this gangling nine-year-old’s yearning to be something less than a throbbing, swollen thumb sticking out of the landscape of elementary school.
We’d moved across town midyear, and I still carried a bit of the scent of the new kid. I spent much of that first recess laid out on a snowbank. Kimberly Jensen owned the playground and welcomed me with a fist to the belly while I hung carelessly exposed from the monkey bars.
And I ran home from the bus stop every day because Jennifer Harris whispered threats in my ear. She was big and mean, but slow. I figured I could keep outrunning her, but the shadow of impending death was overwhelming.
After a week of terrified sprinting, I got off the bus, set my bookbag on the ground and surrendered. From my hands and knees I asked the asphalt to swallow me as I felt the thud of her fists and elbows and knees to my midsection.
When the wheels wrenched to their halt in front of Central Elementary School, I sat still in my seat.
The other students filed out of the bus, laughing and poking one another, but each pausing at my row to stare at the lost girl display like they’d gawked at stuffed beavers and woodchucks sticking up on rods in the exhibition hall. I willed my mismatched shirt and shorts to blend into the surgical green inside of the bus.
When the rest of the kids were gone, I stood and walked to the front. I plotted how I might sneak back into the classroom unnoticed. I’d stop in the bathroom, wash up and walk in smiling and whistling like nothing had happened. But the other teacher was waiting on the curb. She cut into my path and ordered me to the principal’s office.
Where the bad kids go.
The tears hadn’t let loose yet, and I wouldn’t let them, but my cheeks had burned red since the moment that teacher had spotted me lost and alone on the trail.
I’d always thought people searched for ones missing, even if they’d foolishly wandered off. I thought people were sad when they lost someone, happy when they were found.
I don’t remember anyone asking if I was okay. I don’ t remember anyone asking if I needed a glass of water. Nobody stroked my hair or held my hand or told me how worried they’d been.
And I wondered, at the time, if it were not better to be lost than found.
Staying lost, I reasoned, at least one could carry on unseen.
Reposting from the archives.
Because I feel like it. 🙂