“A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was” –Joseph Hall
My husband recently comprehended the richness of life in a way that would have defied planning. By accompanying our daughter’s 4th grade class on a three-day field trip to the regional environmental learning center (ELC), he experienced a familiar institution from an entirely-new angle and, thusly, has felt himself brush up against every last of its walls and aspens, first with with the skinny shoulders of a pre-pubescent lad, more recently with the faciitis-ridden sole of a middle-ager:
In 1982, when he was in 6th grade, Groom first visited the ELC as a student. What he remembers most of this field trip is a feeling of freedom and that he and his best friend wandered off and threw stuff–the bras of 6th grade girls?–into the lake;
In 1992, during college, he toured the ELC at its new location and interviewed for an intern position as a Student Naturalist. Notably, on the drive up to the interview, he ate sausages;
In 1993, freshly graduated from college, he began working and living at the ELC as an intern–this year was one of the rare ones when Lake Superior froze over entirely. He also remembers with great clarity the Blizzard of ’94 when a snowstorm started at noon on a Wednesday and ended two days later, on Friday afternoon. During that time, the snow fell at a steady rate of an inch per hour, which actually alleviated the fears of visiting students regarding the ropes course, for the ground had suddenly risen 4 feet and closed the gap on the ropes. As well, Groomy recalls climbing to the roof of the dormitory and jumping off of it into 15 feet of blown snow, landing feet first and getting resultingly beached in a mound of fluff up to his chest. Another strong memory is of the day in October when a visiting 6th grade student leaned too far in the canoe she was sharing with Student Naturalist Groom and unwittingly dumped them both into Raven Lake. Fortunately, although they couldn’t “unswamp” the canoe, the lake was shallow enough that Groom was able to load the girl into the canoe and then push-walk them all the way back across the lake, trudging his way through a foot of muck on the bottom. Once they reached the shore, it took him an hour in the shower to warm up. Still not over this incident some seventeen years later, he’s pointing at me, as I type this, asserting with Sassy Nature Boy Pride, “It was all her fault. Completely her fault. I’ve never tipped a canoe in my life, even accidentally.” Finally, that memorable year stands out in his memory as a time when he deliberately sought solitude (“All that togetherness proved what an introvert I am. I took a lot of walks alone at night, trying to get away from people”);
In 1995 and 1996, after teaching environmental education at various locations around the country, he returned to the ELC as a seasonal employee (his best recollection of this time is of attending the annual kick-ass, imbibe-your-body-weight New Year’s party along with his colleagues…and then being the only one to show up the next morning for a dog-sledding demonstration. When complimented by the dog handler for his attendance, all Groom could say was, “Yea, I’m here. But I feel like CRAP.” I like to think he’s carried that modus operandi into our marriage, lo these many years later);
In 1997, he was hired at the ELC as a permanent staff member, which entailed both teaching and administration (his administrative job was as “The Scheduler,” which meant he got to make charts and graphs and spreadsheets of the hundreds of schools that would be visiting the ELC throughout the year: their dates, the classes their students would be taking, who would be in which dorm, who would be teaching each class, etc. Have I mentioned lately that he’s the one who makes sure our bills get paid? In my defense, I sometimes do a diverting version of The Twist for him while he’s writing out the cheques);
In 1999, on a blind date arranged by my cousin (who also worked at the ELC), Groomy met me. Suddenly, compared to the radiance of a chatty freckleface, the ELC felt a little dim. Plus, he was beginning to get tired of teaching the same classes over and over (let’s just say he was tired of offering instruction on “Beavers” and, instead, was ready to experience one without the aid of a lesson plan);
Also, in 1999–having experienced beaver outside of dictated curriculum–he knocked me up. I like phrasing that in a way that makes it seem like I had little to do with it;
Also, in 1999, we got married. At the ELC. In the cafeteria. Which proved that sterile linoleum can be dreamy, so long as you feed people roasted pork and have them play bingo until the band is ready to play.
Our guests stayed in the dorms and were able to take on the rock-climbing wall and ropes course during the weekend–hearty prep for the post-outdoor-activity show that was me in the cafeteria at dusk, sobbing uncontrollably as I made my vows to Groom Naturalist
Here I am at our wedding reception. Please notice that, as I talk to my niece and brother, I am bending down. You will be quizzed later on the details of this photo–particularly what you don’t see in it;
Also, in 1999, we realized that English teachers make, in nine months, fully twice what naturalists do for working year ’round;
Also and therefore, in 1999, Groom quit the naturalist life and moved five hours south to where Chatty Freckleface, now “wife,” lived;
In 2001, with a toddler in tow, we moved back up to the North Shore of Lake Superior and settled in Duluth, a mere hour and a half from the ELC;
In 2007, Groom worked periodically as a substitute naturalist at the ELC. Mostly, that period reminded him that there’s no beaver like home;
In 2009 and 2010, he visited classrooms and parents’ meetings to answer questions about the ELC, prepping one hundred 4th graders and their handlers for their upcoming field trip. In particular, he found a boy named Tommy annoying for his ability to ask, repeatedly, “So do we really have to shower everyday?”;
In 2010, Groomeo realized a final role at the ELC when he drove up to its campus in a caravan of school busses containing 100 keyed-up 4th graders; as chaperone to wild and giggling elementary school kids who poke each other in the armpits to express deep affection, his ELC journey came full circle. There, in the place where he once had been an acrophobic boy who refused to do the ropes course, he found himself a near-40-year-old, standing high on a tower, coaching scared kids through the ropes course. Of course, as with everything good in life, it ended with a zip line.
Once Groom and Girl returned from the field trip to the ELC, I plied them with pot pies, cous-cous salad, and a battery of questions.
From Girl, I learned that she had enjoyed The. Best. Time. Ever. And she did the ropes course twice, and she thought the food was pretty gross, and she’d had a couple of girls in her group that she hadn’t really known before but they were nice, and she had sat three-to-a-seat on the bus ride home, and she had a piece of paper onto which she’d glued mouse bones that she’d extracted when Daddy taught a night class about dissecting owl pellets, and she didn’t know if she’d ever unpack her bags from the trip because she needed to check her email and play her viola.
From my husband, I learned that he’d been Point Man, due to his previous experience with the place and knowledge of how things ran, but that had been fine. Moreover, despite having to sleep in a dorm room with six 4th grade boys, he’d cobbled together enough hours of sleep to remain functional. As an added bonus, he made sure his group of pre-pubescent boys didn’t shower every day–since they don’t do so as a habit in their own homes and since, HELLO, water conservation might just play a role in environmental education. In his off moments, marveling at it for sheer spectacle value, Groom watched a fellow chaperone, the father of a lad named Cody, sustain his outdoorsy chaperonage by heading to the fridge in the parents’ lounge and guzzling Mountain Dew straight out of a two-liter bottle.
Ultimately, though, two impressions made the strongest impact on my husband this time around, both stemming from the “then” and “now” vantage point inherent in his long-term familiarity with the place.
First, Groom noted, “I was caught off guard by how different it looks up there. The forest is entirely different because it’s all dying off; mostly, it just feels kind of bare and sad.”
Ready to assume the worst and rail at some injustice in the world, I prodded, “What? Why is that happening? Is it logging that’s decimating the area?”
“No, no, no. It’s just that the birches are all dying off naturally; birch has a 70-100 year life cycle, and most of the birch trees in the area were planted early in the last century, so it’s just time for them to die. But because of that, the whole landscape looks different. It feels really wrong.”
After a moment of sober silence punctuated by cous-cous salad being shoveled into his mouth, he continued, “And, well, actually a whole lot looks different up there. For example, there were cracks everywhere.”
Not sure what he meant, I clarified, “You mean new fissures or something? Is that drought related? I mean, we don’t have earthquakes around here, so what’s going on? What would cause the earth to split?”
“Nope, it’s not a drought issue. It’s a low rise issue. I know it’s the fashion and all, but I swear, I’d rather sleep in a dorm room with twenty-two 4th grade boys for a week than have to look at one more crack exposed in the name of being ‘with it.’ I spent three days walking around the ELC, thinking I was going see volunteer parents helping to belay the kids on the climbing wall or bending down to clip kids into harnesses for the ropes course, but no. What I saw were cracks. Everywhere cracks. Here a crack. There a crack. In the lounge: a crack. In the gift shop: a crack. In the cafeteria, perched upon a bench: a crack.”
“You make it very hard to eat pot pie here,” I gasped, trying not to blow a carrot out my nose. “So these were the female chaperones, I assume? The parents? And they had their rear ends on display because they are hip? Out in the wilds of the Northwoods?”
“I can tell you Gracie’s mom wears a thong, and I never needed to know that,” he replied grimly.
Immediately, I realized how problematic this revelation was: “Holy Kim Kardashian. You’re aware of how dangerous it can be to give me information I shouldn’t have. Now I’m probably going to walk up to Gracie’s mom at school, open my maw, and greet her with a big, ‘SOOOO, I hear from my husband you wear a yellow thong, and he didn’t even find that discovery enjoyable, so maybe buy some longer shirts as a favor to the viewing public, wouldya?’ Oh. GAWD. Me must keep mouth shut. Me must keep mouth shut. But what the hell? All these moms in their 40’s are wearing the low rise and then stretching and bending while they assist with the ELC activities? Like, how do you not think ahead and at least bring yoga pants or a cumberbund or something…in the name of a little ‘I’m with the kids now and not attempting–somewhat pathetically–to prove I’m still worth bagging’ ass coverage?”
“The thing is, it wasn’t just the mothers who were filling my eyes with moons at midday. There are also all the Student Naturalists who are in their twenties… Sure, low rise pants are a bit less jarring when worn by that set, but I still couldn’t believe it: they’re at work; this is their job; and all twenty-five of the students gathered around during a class are exposed to CRACK as their teacher bends down to point out lichen. When I was working here, back in the Nicey Nineties, the women mostly wore Carhartt’s–as part of the overall vibe of being well-equipped, practical, and ready to rescue a lost hiker at a moment’s notice. To this day, I’m glad I never saw any of their cracks. Stick cracks in a night club; take them to the mall; send them to Disneyland; but I don’t want to see them in the woods unless they’re being wiped by a handful of moss.”
Setting down his empty plate with a clank, he admitted, “So I guess the ELC has taught me many things over the years, the most recent of which is that I’m vehemently not a publicly-exposed-crack man.”
Then, pulling me in for a hug, he concluded, “Now. Let’s talk beavers and freckles.”
Final Exam Question for Readers: In the photo of Jocelyn bending down at the ELC during her wedding reception, which part of her derriere was not receiving callers?