Our son, Joe, has been counting down the days to his first-ever Outdoor Lab excursion with school. Outdoor Lab is sleep-away science camp for middle schoolers. Students head to the mountains for some outdoor education that involves daytime field work in science-related topics followed by nights spent sleeping in cabins with teachers and classmates. Joe class would be studying “snow science.” For most kids in our county, Outdoor Lab occurs in 6th grade. Joe’s private school sends kids to Keystone Science School during 7th and 8th grades. Joe has had to wait this extra year to attend. He’s heard his friends talk about it since last year and he was dying for his chance to go.
Weeks ago, he started telling me that he was afraid he would get sick and not be able to make the trip. He worked in extra hand washings every day. As his teachers prepared the class for what to expect, what to pack, and what would be expected of them, Joe would come home filled with details and brimming with expectation. Yesterday afternoon he and I pulled out the packing list, found an appropriate duffel bag and backpack, and located a mummy sleeping bag. Then we set about picking out the right clothing and gathering up gear. 1 pair long underwear. 1 pair ski goggles. 1 pair sunglasses. Sunscreen not less than 35 SPF. Lip balm not less than 15 SPF. 2 water bottles. 1 flashlight. 2-3 pairs synthetic or wool…not cotton..socks. Systematically, we crossed each item off the list as we placed it into the duffel bag he would have to carry from the bus drop off point to the cabin. He was adamant that it all must fit into one bag and that it would have to be easy for him to carry. At the end of the night, we had a medium-sized duffel jam packed with every item on the school’s list, a backpack loaded with sun gear appropriate for hiking at 10,000 feet, and a child who was complaining that time was moving too slowly.
I tucked him and his brother in for the night and fell exhausted into my bed. Of course, Joe woke me up three times between midnight and 4 a.m. and only on the third wake up call admitted to being the tiniest bit nervous about sleeping away from home without his family. We chatted a bit about how everything would be fine, about how being nervous was normal the first time away from home, and about how amazing it would be. I told him I would miss him but he’d be home with us soon. He fell back asleep quickly after we spoke. I stayed awake for another hour and a half thinking about him. My little family of four is my entire world. I was struggling as I tried envisioning us as a trio and not a quartet.
When Joe woke me up at 6:35 (ten minutes before my alarm clock would have summoned me and less than an hour after I’d finally fallen back to sleep), he had already showered and dressed and had played on his iPad for an hour. He spent the morning rushing around, talking excitedly, ready to get out the door. I dragged my feet a bit as it sunk in that he was actually leaving. I packed his lunch slowly, drawing out our last bit of time together for three days. I gave him some cashews to try in his lunch. He chewed one, swallowed it, and then began panicking, imagining that he was going to have an allergic reaction to it and not be able to go. I reassured him that if he had a reaction to the nuts (which he wouldn’t because he’s not allergic to tree nuts or anything else for that matter), the teachers would give him a Benadryl and he’d live another day. I started to wonder if his ingenious plan was to drive me insane so I would not miss him.
When we got to school, we saw many of his classmates had already checked in. The drop-off space was filled with all manner of packed items. There were rolling suitcases, sleeping bags packed in square, plastic, comforter bags, and large, garden-sized trash bags filled with supplies. I started to wonder if I was the only one who had obsessed to ensure my son had all the requested gear neatly packed exactly as specified. The principal came over and told me that Joe won the award for Best Packed Bags. I guess that means I am still a prize-winning rule follower.
I gave him a big hug and snapped a quick photo of him weighed down by his perfect bag. He looked so grown up just then, standing there squinting in the morning sun on the east side of the school. I watched him as he walked toward the stairs for class, quietly sending him all the positivity and love in my heart. I held it together as I had promised him and didn’t even tear up until I was exiting the school parking lot. I breathed a sigh of relief when the school messaged that the group had arrived safely at Keystone.
I’ve been wrong thinking of this as Joe’s adventure. It’s my adventure too. After thirteen years, Joe is off learning how to be Joe without my help. And I’m here learning that he’s not mine. There’s genius in this Outdoor Lab concept. The kids aren’t the only ones getting an education and important life experience. Looks like Joe and I are both getting schooled this week.