CTY (and the Passionfruit)
Walking through the Yard yesterday, I commented to a friend that if I met myself of three years ago, I wouldn't know where to begin to explain how the past three years have gone, except to say one thing: "Ross, you'll the most wonderful friends you've ever known."
But today, as I've been reminded a few times via Facebook, is another important anniversary of a time my life took an unforeseen turn for the better, which deserves a few words, I guess. I really don't know what I'd say to myself of eight years ago, but here's something of an attempt.
Eight years ago today, my parents drove me to Carlisle, Pennsylvania to drop me off for three weeks at the Center for Talented Youth summer program. It was the first time that I'd be sleeping away from family for more than a few days, and I didn't know it then, but it would change my life. I'd spend a total of four summers at CTY, learning things that -- in the long run -- weren't that important, and making friendships which would prove utterly crucial to the person I became.
I had a few friends in middle school, but not many, and not any that were actually at my school. I wasn't picked on, but I was an outcast. It probably would have hurt, if I'd noticed. But mostly I kept to myself, and was okay with the fact that I kept to myself.
And then, one summer Sunday, my parents dropped me off at CTY, at Dickinson College, ostensibly to learn Latin for three weeks. And I made friends. It was by far the least memorable of my four summers (by some math, three weeks = one summer) at the program, and it changed me an incredible amount -- because I made friends.
I don't mean to go on like a broken record, but I can't make this point clearly enough. If you've never been a middle-schooler who had only really ever had two good friends, one of whom went to a different middle school, and the other of which had moved to Florida one year before, making friends is a big deal. Going to a camp where everyone -- everyone -- was bright, and excited to learn things, and a nerd, where you weren't tethered to the (lack of) social status you'd been reinforcing year after year in your incestuously small-town school was...
It was incredible. It has a solid place in the top-four most important formative things to happen in my life, and was, chronologically, the second of them.
I can't remember many things that I did in that first summer, except that I had a crush on a girl. It was only the second time I'd had a crush on a girl, and the first time that I had done so and then gone on to talk to her for more than a few sentences.
This was, as they say, a huge deal.
The second summer, said girl was too affectionate with another guy for my liking, and so I went off to find new friends. I went to the cool kids of the camp -- the girl who wore a duct-tape crown, the charming boy who wore a fedora (before fedoras became a social statement) and could do cool things with glowsticks at dances, the girl who ran Poetry Night on Thursdays, and would wear a toga to let people know that It Was Thursday and Therefore Poetry Night. The kids who were all older than me, who were respected, and who loved that camp and kept all sorts of silly traditions alive. The kids who, when a second-year came looking for new friends, took him in immediately.
For years after we'd all gone, we'd organize reunions at someone's house where we'd watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show, play silly card games with arbitrary rules, cuddle on couches, and talk about life -- but for those three weeks... we ate meals together in the cafeteria, played silly card games with arbitrary rules, cuddled on couches, talked about life, read poetry on Thursday nights, danced together at the dances that were inexplicably the highlights of our lives thus far, woke up on Sunday mornings for the traditional making-of-toasts to CTY. We sacrificed potatoes to Godzilla (among other inside jokes), burst into impromptu singalongs of La Vie Boheme no fewer than once per week, swapped outfits on (CTY-Carlisle-traditional) Drag Day, tagged each other with masking tape on (CTY-Carlisle-traditional) Love Tape Day, talked a lot about sex, fell in love, fell out of love, made hats out of duct tape, snuggled on the couch(, on the lawns, and just about everywhere...), and had the three weeks of our lives.
Apparently, the rest of them had been doing it for many summers, and I just snuck in the year that ~40% of them had aged out and another ~40% were about to. But I'm glad that I did.
I came back for a third summer, and didn't quite know what to do at first. Many of the people who'd defined my CTY experience had aged out. The remnants of that social group stuck together, and gradually drew in new people, but everything had changed, and I didn't like it. What was CTY without Reggie, Olivia, Rachel, and the rest?
Well, we figured it out, despite the constant threat of a Swine Flu diagnosis getting you sent home. And I learned (not without a little soul-searching) that CTY existed because some third- and fourth-years cared a lot about paying forward the friendship we had found -- as well as keeping the camp's traditions alive.
Oh, the traditions. I think I may already be too old to understand just why they were so important, but they were. There was the strangest "canon" of songs which we would always insist be played at dances. There was poetry night, there was the pageantry of The Passionfruit -- a Sunday-morning gathering of toasts-cum-speeches to CTY, there was the annual watching of Starcrash, an immanitization of the Platonic ideal of awful Z-list Star Wars knockoff.
There were jokes that predated any of us, there was an obsession with making articles of clothing out of duct tape, there were days when most of the camp would cross-dress and days when we expressed friendship and affection by sticking people with masking tape. There were dances that you were supposed to do when particular songs were played at dances, and specific callbacks for when they played American Pie, always the last song, before they sent us home. And for some unfathomable reason, it was all very important that it be just so.
It was silly. It was wonderful. It was something that made CTY special, and that made us part of something special. It gave us something to remember, to take back into the world, and to hold onto. It gave us something that was ours.
And so, in my last year, I found myself ready to be one of those people that second-years go to when they are looking to find friends. I was respected (because I was old, but also because I was confident enough to be seen as cool), and so I used that.
I taught my fellow campers about the old traditions, which had been given to me to make CTY CTY, and which I passed down, hoping that they would mean for others what they meant for me. I taught anyone who would learn how to rave with glowsticks. I (and my like-spirited hallmate) set out to have the closest-bonded hall, despite being under the administrators' eye as known troublemakers, and we probably did it.
I, having been appointed Poetry Goddess, ran Poetry Night, wore togas when I had to, and made myself a laurel-leaf crown from duct tape (starting a new tradition, and giving the Poetry Goddess headwear to match the duct-tape crowns of the leaders of the Passionfruit ceremony). I tried my hardest to do the things that I had appreciated people doing when I had just come to CTY.
And I remember leaving.
Each year, we were given a different color lanyard, so that we could be identified as campers. And it was traditional, or at least common, to collect them year after year and wear them together, to signify all the years you'd been at the camp. That last week, though, I'd clipped mine to my belt and instead wore around my neck the frayed yellow one I'd been issued in 2002, my first time at CTY day-camp, back in second grade. That camp wasn't the same thing at all -- but it was run by CTY, and that meant something. And on the end of it, I had tin-wire rings from the 'marriage booth' that had been set up in the weekend carnival in 2008, where we had 'married' -- in some order -- each other, CTY, and two other things I can't now remember.
On the Friday we left, as was traditional, my teacher (or my RA; I can't remember) gave me his black Staff lanyard, which I proudly wore alongside my yellow one from 2002. Though I had passed on the role of Poetry Goddess to a third-year friend, I had given him a green duct-tape laurel-leaf crown and kept my own silver one -- as was the custom for such things -- and that day, I wore it with some pride, not because it was Poetry Night, but because it was the last time that I could wear it and have it be understood.
And so, four years of lanyards hanging from my belt, my oldest and my newest around my neck, and wearing a wreath of silver duct tape that only made me a mortal deity on one small campus in central Pennsylvania for three weeks, I left Carlisle for what was effectively the last time (though I'd come back to drop my brother off...), head high, and I waited until my parents had gotten onto the interstate before I cried.
To the lucky few who have just been dropped off by your parents on some college campus for three weeks of you-don't-know-what-to-expect: You're in for a wild, wonderful ride. Make some memories, make some friends, live, love, and dance. It's been long enough that there are CTYers who never knew me who you'll never know, but even so, the camp that you're attending has been shaped by years and years of campers who have gone before you and who have, for the most part, actively tried to make it a better place than they found it.
To those of you who are, for the first time in four years, not going off to CTY on this summer Sunday: I know that it hurts. The first year after my nomore year, my friends and I spent a few weeks putting together a manual of Carlisle traditions and wisdom that none of the first-years actually needed -- but which we, for ourselves, felt the need to write. They say it gets better, but by that they mean it hurts less -- and they're right. It does. And, after a few years, you start to feel childish for looking back to a summer camp that you spent less than twelve total weeks at and are nevertheless scared that, perhaps, you'll never know anything better. You know, they don't call it 'Post-CTY Depression' for nothing, but you do start to get numb to it, after a while.
And then, less than a month after my second year of not-going-to-CTY began, my parents dropped me off on a college campus on a Monday morning. And I got a room key and a key card and a lanyard. And I met the boy who would be my roommate, and is now my best friend. And, within three weeks, I had met the six other people who -- over the next three years -- would become the best friends I now have, and whom I would get to choose to live with for the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after that.
We ate meals together in the dining hall, helped each other through Computer Science assignments and Government readings and Physics problem sets and Poetry essays, made new inside jokes, cuddled on couches, and are still talking a lot about life, even when we're apart for the summer. We've been together through coursework and birthdays, breakups and hurricanes, snow days and terror threats, and we still have another year to go.
Oh, and I met the legendary Max Wang.
It's the first day of 15.2, which means that it's been four years since the hundreth time it sank home that I wasn't going back. One of my college application essays was adapted from an open letter I wrote to the CTYers I was leaving behind:
The things I risked -- and failed at -- here have taught me so much, I am not sure who I would be without them. Honestly, I would rather not find out. CTY has made me who I am -- and now I must leave it for good.
And yet, that is the way it should be. If they let me come back another year, I would lead one more glorious session -- and take that chance away from someone else.
My time is past (and what an amazing time it has been...) and now this time is yours. I am gone so you can take the chances I would have. If you teach first-years, lead dances, and hold protests in my place -- if my departure means that someone younger can step forward, then I will not be sad, but satisfied.
Then, I was resigned to leaving as part of the natural order of things, but while I understood that it had to be so, I was still devastated by it. Now, though, I've found another place that I feel at home -- here, at school -- and I no longer have to look backwards with regret and resigned understanding.
I remain enormously grateful to everyone -- students, and staff -- who made CTY the place it was for me, and was tremendously lucky to have encountered it when I did. But I can also say -- to the me of four years ago, who's honestly terrified that the best times of his life might already be behind him -- that they're not, that he'll find the most wonderful friends and yes, something as wonderful as CTY again. It'll just take some time.
That I can promise him on CTY and the Passionfruit.
If you're a forevermore who wants to talk to another forevermore about life after CTY, I'm always willing to chat. Shoot me an email.