EAS Reflection

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Living Adventure: A Distance-Student’s View of EAS
by Amanda Hacking, age 15

As far as I know, my family has always loved exploration and adventure. For most of my life I’ve heard stories of my parents’ seven years of cruising the Caribbean, and of their trips to Africa and the Himalayas. All four of us had even spent summers in southern Africa and New Zealand and Australia. I always looked forward to the hazy “someday” when I would get to see more of the world, but when I started at the Environmental and Adventure School I certainly didn’t imagine that that someday would come so soon.

Like most people, I came to EAS in sixth grade. I had been prepared to go through my elementary school and then slip into the anonymity of oh-so-many junior high students. But due to increasing numbers of students in my elementary school, if I had stayed there for sixth grade I would have ended up repeating the curriculum from the year before. This thought started my parents and me looking for different options, and prompted us towards the Environmental and Adventure school.

Now, by fifth grade I was definitely no city girl, and had already hugged many a tree in my life. The fact that EAS had an environmental focus, along with the added bonus that it started in sixth grade, made my parents and me leap for it. I was thrilled when I was accepted. Hello time outdoors, I thought. Hello, people who love spending time outside as much as I do. It was a bit of a shock when I discovered that I wasn’t exactly right.

Maybe I thought that no one would go to a school named Environmental and Adventure if they weren’t already a complete tree-hugger. Maybe I thought that there really were so many kids that shared my profuse love for exploring, for being outdoors. I don’t really remember what I was thinking three and a half years ago when I stepped through the doors of EAS for the first time. But what I found was… another school, just like so many others. There were kids of all sorts, I discovered. Kids who liked to hike and camp in the wilderness, kids who spent their free time skateboarding or mall-crawling, kids who enjoyed nothing better than to sit on the couch watching television. It was a bit of a slap in the face, but looking back from where I am now – sitting on my sailboat, anchored off a tropical island in the South Pacific – it makes perfect sense. But it didn’t so much back then.

The first time at Camp Hamilton really hammered this in. We were going camping for a week… in wood cabins with lights and beds, in the mess hall with its refrigerator and freezer and stove and oven. There was electricity and running water and real flushing toilets, even if the students weren’t allowed to use them. This was camping? I was surprised when I saw kids arriving at camp with huge duffels full of every sort of stuff you could imagine, and then wound up having forgotten their toothpaste. I had to fight back an urge to tell them “No, you don’t need a six-foot-long pillow. You don’t need a CD player. You do, however, need toothpaste.” I found myself sleeping outside in the shelter, alone except for a couple of adults, because other girls kept me awake by whispering and giggling and then shrieking when they thought a mouse had run over their sleeping bag.

But I quickly found that taking such a high-handed view of things was a way to be very, very alone. What did it matter that I had gone camping before? The seventh and eighth graders had been at Camp Hamilton before; did that make them better, somehow? The fact was, we were all in the same place now, and it would only last a week until we were back in schoolrooms learning things by rote and daily homework. Make the best of it, I told myself. Camp Hamilton was as much to make new friends as to learn things that could only be theory in a classroom. I wanted friends; the best way to do that, I found, was to just go with the flow. To blend in. So I blended, as best as I could. And when we returned to the Kirkland classrooms, I felt like school was truly beginning, with the bonus that everyone already knew each other.

When Friday Projects started, that created another bunch of groups that pushed people who may not have originally spent time together, together. Within a month, two at most, every person at EAS knew everyone else by name. It was a sort of school community that I had never had before. It was small, and everyone there was reaching towards a common goal. Through Friday Projects and the other whole-school trips I realized that, however different we were at the beginning of the year, and however different we still were, we were all at the same place, doing the same things. I don’t remember much about sixth grade, or seventh for that matter, but I do remember this: never before did I feel like I was such a part of something.

And as the year progressed the feeling grew. Halfway through the year, I was very happy that I would be spending the next three and a half years at this great school with most of these wonderful people, including the teachers. The Blake Island and Bowman Bay trips only enhanced this feeling. What a shock it was when I realized that I would not, actually, be at EAS for the full four years. My parents had decided to buy a boat, and the plan was for our whole family to go sailing for two to three years.

In the middle of sixth grade, it was hard to believe. Surely it wouldn’t happen; the plans would fall to pieces in a few months when my parents realized how crazy they were. But in May of 2001 my parents came back from a trip to the Caribbean saying that they had bought a boat. The plans then were to move aboard sometime later that year.

After that, I didn’t really know what to tell people. The plans were materializing around me, and even a blind man could see it was only a matter of time until we bundled up all our stuff and flew to St. Martin. The realistic part of me could see that, and I was getting more excited as more pieces of the puzzle fit into place, but there was always that treacherous part of me that wanted to stay where I was, with my friends and the wonderful school I had found. It wasn’t easy to leave towards the end, when people realized that it really was going to happen and started turning their “Have fun, email me” into “You can’t go!”

The beginning of seventh grade was the biggest challenge. A lot of people, I believe, hadn’t expected me to come back to EAS to start the year. We had said our good-byes the year before; why would I be back? The truth of it was, our plans were to leave after Thanksgiving, and I wanted to see Camp Hamilton and all my friends more before I left. It was fun; for that trimester, I felt like a veteran of camp and Friday Projects and all the things that go with EAS, and my friendships with the other kids only strengthened. It really wasn’t easy to leave after that.

Even after Thanksgiving, when I stopped going to school to help prepare us to leave – we had pushed back the flight to early-, then mid-December – I still had times when I wished I wasn’t leaving. But the boulder was already rolling, and nothing could stop it now. December 17th the plane took off from Sea-Tac, and I was on it, flying to St. Martin and the boat I had never seen that would be my home for years.

So many people had said that our trip was the opportunity of a lifetime, that we would see so many things and oh, weren’t they so jealous of us. I didn’t quite see their views. It didn’t seem like such a big deal to me, though I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  It hadn’t yet hit me that I wouldn’t return to Redmond until a year and a half later, and then only for a visit; back then the thought of staying away for that long was incredible. I thought I’d be back for ninth grade, and good riddance to the sailing life. It would be an adventure, and when our time was out we’d come back to the only life I could imagine – in Redmond.

And so for the first months I tried desperately to hold onto that life. I sent long, chatty emails to my friends saying nothing more than “I’m bored,” or spent dollars at a time in the Internet cafés for hour-long IMs. I resisted friendships at first with other cruiser-kids; we were heading different directions, so what was the point in trying to start up a friendship? It wasn’t until after we had left the populated and busy St. Martin for the more out-of-the-way West Indies that I realized that keeping such a tight hold on my old life was folly. Sometimes we couldn’t collect email for months at a time, and I discovered that my friends back home were losing their fascination with me.

I don’t think it was a conscious decision on my part to accept this new, if temporary, life. I believe it just slowly happened, what with the lessening of contact with “the real world” and the increasing feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere. Eventually, though, the social girl inside of me realized that we weren’t in the middle of nowhere. In the Caribbean, there were kids everywhere; cruising kids like my brother and me appeared in almost every anchorage we went to. The trick was to go over, introduce ourselves, and simply make friends. Most of the time we were staying in the same place for a while, and I found that lots of boats were heading in our general direction – southwest, and as many were planning to go through Panama, like us, as were planning to stop there or head north instead. When we got out of the unpopulated islands, I realized just how much of a community the cruisers made. I had seen a large example of it in St. Martin, but hadn’t really thought about it; most of the boats there belonged to people who had no intention of going anywhere anytime soon. I learned later, sitting in St. Martin like that wasn’t really what cruising was about.

But through the whole trip, I realized how lucky I really was. The islands we visited were magnificent, in their own special and individualized ways, and I realized how few people actually got to see them. The cruising outlook is very unique, also; we usually get to see the people on the islands in their natural lives, not livened up for tourists. Many places we went had the occasional cruise ship, and it was funny to watch all the “white-socks” walk around town, ducking into every souvenir shop they could find and feeling like they were getting such an interesting experience. It made me appreciate the way natives treated us cruisers; instead of seeing us as rich tourists with more dollars than sense, a lot of locals accepted us as visitors and friends. The contrast was sharp, and one that I appreciated greatly.

And there was also the cruising community. The variety in all the people we’ve met out here is amazing, because they’ve come from all over the world. And the enjoyable part of it is that other cruisers can be frankly crazy, or calm, or explorative, or whatever, and most other cruisers will simply love them for it. I’ve found that cruisers tend to be a lot more open-minded about others than people can be when they’re enclosed in tight, little communities. Perhaps it’s because, sitting in an anchorage with only ten other boats, you can’t exactly pick and choose who you associate with very much. I think it makes us all rather laid-back and cooperative, at least with each other.

When we went back to the States for a visit in 2003, the differences between people there and here hit me very hard. I was tossed into a maelstrom of people, all trying to gain each other’s respect or friendship. I hooked myself to my few solid friends, and looked around wide-eyed at all the people I had once known, who had changed so much. I had a few wistful thoughts of being back in sixth grade, so naïve and innocent. The socializing in ninth grade was tense, not the hang-loose, be-yourself sort of thing I was now used to. It was all “What will they think of me if I do this?” or “What is the appearance they expect of me?” I found myself wondering what I would have done if these people were cruisers, and had spent the time I had away from all this “civilization.” I think it would have been a culture shock for them, going straight from one to the other.

And while I was back there, I realized that at times, I really was the epitome of an EAS student. Like theory in the classroom being put to practice at Camp Hamilton, my life is like the final draft. If you break it down, it’s easy to see: The Environmental and Adventure School. The “adventure” part is simple, at least – in the past two and a half years, I have sailed almost ten-thousand miles, seen more countries – half of which I had never even known were countries – than I ever could have imagined. I’ve scuba-dived with hundreds of sharks through a narrow pass of an atoll in French Polynesia. In Tonga I’ve been to local feasts of octopus and fried pig, with banana stalks as plates. For twenty-four days straight, I stayed up at night for hour-and-a-half watches, sailing our family home across the ocean through squalls and calms, with no land in sight. In the Galapagos Islands, the archetype of evolution, I have played underwater with wild sea-lions, marine iguanas, and penguins, all in their natural habitats… A hundred things that I never would have thought I’d do, I have done. The experiences will stick with me forever, and if all that isn’t adventure, I don’t know what is.

And then the “environmental.” I’ve hiked through bamboo forests on the hills of Martinique. I’ve dived through coral gardens sixty feet below the surface of the ocean, watching schools of fish billow and swarm around me. Sand dunes have been my afternoon’s entertainment in the offshore islands of Venezuela… rolling down them, slipping and sliding back up – it’s like a different world. And the flamingo-adorned salt flats of Bonaire, at first glance deserted and vacant of life but in truth teeming with it, deceived the eye as they educated. In the Galapagos, I have walked over lava flows as old as the islands themselves, and some as new as only one hundred years old, desolate but not bleak, with only ropy or spiky black lava shining in the sun as far as the eye can see. I could go on forever. There’s so much diversity in the world, I have seen a lot more of nature than I thought possible. And there’s probably more, just waiting for me. But I’ve found the environment is not just plants and trees, birds in the air and fish underwater. Environment means one’s surroundings, including human influences. It has been amazing to see all the differences in the individual countries and islands. If someone had told me, years ago, that there was a whole part of a country with a water supply that was completely contaminated with mercury, I would have said they were crazy. But I’ve seen it in Manta, Ecuador, and I’ve seen the effect it’s had on the city. I’ve seen the effects of over-harvesting both fish and shellfish in the oceans, piles of conch shells – mostly immature! – like sand dunes covering the shores of the Grenadines. In the Caribbean, where twenty years ago I’m told there were beautiful coral reefs covered in hundreds of conch shells and fish, there are now silty rocks with the occasional fish or eel, and the reef-eating Crown of Thorns starfish covering the rocks. My parents used to catch a fish every other day while sailing. Now we’re lucky to catch one or two on a two-week passage. People are killing things, and it hurts me to see it. I’m afraid I’ll be an old lady, telling stories to little children about the wonderful coral reefs of the South Pacific, and they’ll look up at me and ask, “What’s a coral?” and I’ll have no answer because they won’t be able to visualize what we now take for granted. It hurts, and it hurts because I can’t do anything about it. But the joy of EAS is that now that I know, maybe somewhere along the line I will be able to do something to help the environment.

At times, now, I feel like if I didn’t have anything else to do with my life, I would be happy out here, just cruising around and being myself. But even out here, there are things that people expect of you. Higher education, a “real life.” So often I think that cruising is the real life, and living ashore just a show, or performance. But cruising is not for everyone, and there’s always been a part of me that aches to get back to the social hustle and bustle of life ashore. And so, as I first predicted, when my cruising time is up I’ll head back “home,” and lose myself in the anonymous world of education. One of my strongest regrets is that once I found a great school like EAS, I spent more than half of my potential four years away from it. With any other school, my story would be very different. But I wasn’t a distance-student of any other school, I was a distance-student of the Environmental and Adventure School, and that has helped me to see the world through different eyes. Cruising has definitely been an interesting and wonderful period in my life, which I’m very glad to have experienced. My memories of it will stay forever, and be augmented by my experiences at EAS as well.

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