I became a writer the day I realized I’d never be a pond-scum skimmer. Let me explain.
The whispers about Peanut Butter Mountain started going around at the beginning of third grade. “It’s super deep in the woods,” we heard from fourth graders. “Every year, at least one kid breaks an arm.” “At night up there, Mr. Utzig turns into a bear.” None of us had fifth-grade siblings to ask for the truth, so we had no choice but to rely on the fourth graders.
Q: Do we all to get to go?
A: If you get a detention, they might not let you.
Q: What’s the best activity to do up there?
A: Anything’s okay, but just don’t get stuck with Pond-Scum Skimming.
Q: What’s that???
A: You really, really don’t want to know.
Once we got to fourth grade, we realized that the previous fourth graders had just been making stuff up; there was no special “pre-mountain” training, no special diet we had to follow. A few of us called the ex-fourth graders on their bluff, but by then they were true fifth graders and got the real fifth-grade briefing and took the “vow of silence” that meant they wouldn’t tell us anything more about the mountain. Instead, they told us that in the fifth-grade science class, Mr. Utzig gave everyone a dried jalapeño pepper and just laughed as the white Midwestern kids squirmed. He also dissected a squirrel right in front of them, all the way down to the bone. For a few months we forgot to be nervous about the mountain and instead we got nervous about fifth-grade science instead.
Finally, after months that stretched on like years, we made it: fifth grade, top of the elementary food chain. Like those before us, we too survived the jalapeño peppers — and the squirrel — and our parents signed the field-trip paperwork. We were going to the mountain, all of us, even those who’d gotten detentions. On the bus, we sang made-up songs and braided each other’s hair. In reality, Peanut Butter Mountain was just a tall hill, but few of us had ever seen a massive, jagged peak with a snow-capped top, so we hushed up in awe when the bluffs of the Wisconsin Dells came into view, and we pressed our noses to the windows as the bus pulled into the campground. Four days, sixty kids, and a half dozen chaperones with airplane-sized liquor bottles hidden in their backpacks.
We bolted from the bus toward the cabins and established our posses in their proper places. My posse of mostly bookish girls fanned out in a cabin near the showers and toilets. I clambered into a top bunk to lay out a t-shirt and claim my spot. Then I clambered right back down to shove my duffel bag in the closet. I was careful not to let it fall open in front of the others; my mother was convinced that camp week, of all weeks, would be the one my period to come on full-strength for the very first time. So she lined the entire bottom of my duffel bag with sanitary napkins, the night-time ones almost the size of full-on diaper. I had three full packs of jumbo pads arranged in rows at the bottom of the bag. Just in case.
After we were settled, the chaperones rounded us up beside the fire. “Write your name three times,” they said as they handed out little slips of paper, and we did. Some of us used our own names, and some of us went with noms de guerre like Fart Face and Sprinkle Butt. We then carried our names to a row of shoeboxes lined up around the fire pit. Each box had a sign for a different activity: Dreamcatcher Weaving, Bows & Arrows, Hiking, Bird Watching, Whittled Flutes, and several more. I was paralyzed by choice; we hadn’t been given a list of options in advance, and I felt unprepared to face the moment of reckoning. I looked around at my friends, who went for safe bets like Beading and Drum Circle. My boy buddies dropped their names into things like La Crosse and Lifeguard Training.
Then I saw a box at the end of the row that almost empty, except for a handful of names: Pond-Scum Skimming. I shook my head in disbelief that anyone would want to waste a precious activity slot on that. No way, I knew better than that. Instead, I dropped my name in Beading, Hiking, and Peanut Butter Newsletter. Everyone already knew I was one of the English Kids, and I figured I’d try to do at least one sensible activity during my time on the mountain.
The next day, all of us were required to run through a ropes course in the woods, complete with balance beams and nets we jumped into from platforms high off the ground. After that, we dispersed to Activity #1: Beading, where I achieved a necklace. The next morning, we got up early for Activity #2: Hiking, where we saw rabbits and owl poop.
The last day of camp, I was sore and cranky when I reported for Newsletter duty at the front office of the campground. For reasons now lost to history, I ended up last in line for my assignment: “Go cover Pond-Scum Skimming,” the parent chaperone told me, ignoring my scrunched-up nose. “Get going, hurry up.” She handed me a pocket-sized green notebook and a pencil and sent me to catch up with the group.
I wandered into the supply cabin to see a small handful of my classmates pulling waders and rubber boots over their clothes. One of them was Matt, the boy who got the most detentions of anyone in our grade. In ninth grade, he’d be my first-ever date to the movies, but at the supply cabin we just ignored each other as I took notes about the group’s preparations. Then I followed the would-be skimmers to the pond at the base of Peanut Butter Mountain, and I watched from the shore as they all got in the water and the chaperone handed them butterfly nets.
Technically, I wasn’t allowed to participate, but I could smell the algae and batted just as many mosquitoes off my neck as everybody else. The skimmers dragged the nets across the top of the water and dumped “samples” into buckets on the shore. Matt worked diligently in the water and so did I as I watched him, filling little page after little page with observations of the scene. Back at the supply cabin, my classmates put bits of algae on slides and looked at them under the microscope. Matt let me look through his and I watched wiggly, living creatures of all sorts of shapes and sizes. Worms, bacteria, almost certainly a few amoebas — it was grossly incredible, and I was deeply impressed.
I was self-aware enough to know, even then, that I didn’t really want to get in that stinky pond myself, even after my amazement at what I saw through the microscope. But I had suddenly developed a new appreciation for the kind of people who did want to get in there. And I understood clearly that as a writer, I got the chance to witness something special, something extra, in the pond and the make-shift lab. Everybody else at camp only got to participate in three activities, but by tagging along to the pond, I’d essentially finagled my way into a fourth.
That evening, we all got back on the bus to head home from the mountain, and I lugged a bag full of unused sanitary napkins up the steps. The little green notebook was still tucked snug in my back pocket.