As a teenager, I counted down the days to CTY each year. I waited desperately, 49 weeks at a time, for those three scant weeks when I would be home at nerd camp.
When I started teaching at the same program three years ago, a lot of that same excitement came back, but it was mixed with trepidation. Would I feel the same homecoming, the same magic I’d known as a lonely teenager?
Oh, I did. It was different this time: I was an adult (okay, I was twenty-three, but that’s in the ballpark), and I was as close to a Real Writer as I could have wished when I was an ambitious and idealistic thirteen-year-old. Both those things made the experience of CTY, in small ways, better than it had been before. I now had the power to create the loving, challenging, inclusive environment that had exploded my in-turned heart as a teen. I could give that gift to the kids of 2012 who were stuck in the same place I’d been in 2001. That was magic.
In 2012, I was still coming from a place I couldn’t quite call home. I had just graduated from the MFA program at Notre Dame, a school where I’d met some beloved friends but had felt overwhelmingly frustrated by the various bigotries both on campus and in Indiana at large. I’d felt physically and emotionally landlocked, and coming back to CTY–on a Los Angeles campus no less–was like diving into cool water after a hot day. The work of teaching wore me out, but my relief was huge.
Of course, shortly after my summer of teaching I left for Ireland. Here I found a new home. I meant to stay and research the sequel to Tides for a month or two and nurse my burnout and my broken heart, but (as you’ll remember if you read my first essay for Parabola) life had vastly different plans for me. Just over a year later I eloped and moved with my Irish husband into the stove-heated cottage that has been my heart’s home ever since.
Just under a week from now, I’m leaving this home to go back to CTY.
For the first time, I don’t want to go.
Of course I love teaching; of course I love my students, and CTY students most of all. I have a passion for teaching writing and for this program in particular that I can already tell will supersede a lot of my homesickness once I’m actually gone.
But it hurts to know that CTY isn’t my home any more. The fiercely lonely, fiercely loyal teenager who found kindred spirits there doesn’t want me to give it up. I still have the lanyards students were given each year, but I don’t keep my keys on them any more. That makes some part of me inexpressibly sad.
Maybe it’s a universal feeling of young adulthood–not #YA like I write it, but the phase I’m in now, going on twenty-seven. Maybe we all have to mourn our first homes, wherever they were, when we realize we don’t live there any more. I know that happened to me when I left Smith, where I was a happy feminist undergrad for three and a half years. It happened when my high-school/college sweetheart and I decided that despite how much we cared for each other, we shouldn’t be together. It still happens to me sometimes, in quiet and complicated ways, when I find myself missing America.
Richie (that would be my husband) often says that people don’t give themselves enough permission to mourn. If we’re happy about a change, we don’t let ourselves be sad for what we’ve lost along the way. I know he and I both mourned our singledoms when we got married. If we hadn’t accepted that sadness in ourselves and each other, I don’t think we could have dealt with it in the same way.
Part of me is sad that I’m not that CTY kid any more: the quiet girl who suddenly didn’t have enough minutes in the day to chatter with her roommate. The shy girl who sang in the talent show. The awkward girl who had her Perfect Teenage Moment (everyone needs one) at a camp dance. I miss being her, and I can look back and love her more kindly than she was able to love herself. CTY is part of what let me get to the loving adult that I can be now.
That makes me think that some future me is looking back and loving who I am today, too. Maybe she’s mourning something else that’s changed, even though I hope she’s happy with where she’s gone. I know my lonely thirteen-year-old self would be thrilled to hear where I’ve ended up.
So I might cry when I chaperone the dances this year, and I’ll definitely cry when my husband drops me off for my flight. But with that sadness–I can already feel it welling up–comes so much gratitude.CTY helped me survive in a pretty literal sense, and I know I wouldn’t be the same me without it. That place and time is not my home any more, but I get to help create it for other bright, lonely kids, and that’s something worth leaving my adult home behind to build.
I go from one happiness to another, counting down the days. And at the end of it I get to come home, and feel happy and safe for much longer than three weeks this time.
Art credits: X X X X X