In the eighth grade, right before the weather got too hot and the rigor of middle school final exams fell upon our shoulders, our teachers took us to see a play. I don’t remember what the show was, but when it was over, the Land Jet buses commissioned for the field trip across state lines shuttled us to South Street Seaport, where we had a couple of hours to feed and entertain ourselves.
It would be two and a half years before terrorists attacked the Twin Towers, a ten minute walk across the Financial District. We were just a year away from the Columbine school shooting; a team of reporters would come to our cafeteria to ask us how what we thought about the comparisons drawn between our high school and Columbine. These were the days before snipers staked out gas stations in the Beltway and the annual D.C. trip (which my class had taken in October) was canceled indefinitely because, really, what choice was there?
But in the spring of 1998, the world was safe enough, apparently, to set two hundred fourteen-year-olds loose in a retail and entertainment slash historical district with a loosely-defined border and poorly-enforced boundaries.
The big, bad city on one side and the East River on the other, and the lot of us killing time in the middle. Maybe it was a test. Overcrowding was a hot issue in our school district; maybe they hoped to whittle down the class of 2002.
The chaperones, mostly teachers, seemed not much more apprehensive than usual. As the buses shimmied through traffic in the last few blocks before the seaport, my Social Studies teacher rose from her seat to stand in the aisle right next to the driver and gave orders to travel in groups of four or six, and to maintain an unobstructed view of at least one classmate at all times. And then the bus doors opened.
My first impression of South Street Seaport was the sun drenched cobblestone pavilion, and beyond that, weather worn wooden steps down to the water. The breeze tossed my long ponytail in a way that I hoped was attractive. I put on sunglasses and pretended to know what it felt like to be a grownup.
After lunch, I browsed souvenir shops with my group. I was still waiting in line at a toy store when the clock struck; we were supposed to be back at the bus, but everyone waited for me to pay for my Sea Slipper toy (a water balloon that slips inside out itself, like a Möbius strip, like this).
We hurried to join the crowd of students waiting for the buses, hoping the authority figures wouldn’t notice our tardiness. None of them did, but our classmates told us that we’d missed an impromptu class photo. The principal had been so pleased with our collective good behavior that she decided to document the occasion. Our class had already been photographed on the bleachers in the gym (officially) and at The Awakening outside of D.C. (unofficially). I felt guilty for holding up my friends just for a silly toy, but if anybody cared, they didn’t say so. We took turns playing with the Sea Slipper, passing it between our seats the whole ride back to school.
We were over class pictures, I decided. Beyond them, above them.
A few weeks later, I brought the toy with me to Sunday School. Attendance was mandatory; I was expected to at least fake my way through my Confirmation at the end of the year. I needed something to distract me from the resentful boredom I endured every week.
I let it slip and slip and slip through my fingers, and then without thinking, I slipped my thumbnail under the taped seam. The plastic bubble burst, dousing my hands and the front of my sweater in blue water.
My classmates laughed so hysterically that I left the room only under the guise of going to the restroom to wring myself out. I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t go back. In retrospect, they were probably not as gleefully entertained by my mishap as they were grateful for the distraction, but I hated them for laughing. I left the deflated water balloon in the garbage, wet clumps of glitter clinging to its shapeless skin, and I slipped over to the church to sit with my mom.
The girls found me at coffee hour after the service.
“You never came back,” they said. Well, no. How could I? It was bad enough to take Communion with that faint blue stain on my sweater. I certainly wasn’t going to let those jerks sit and stare at it instead of listening to the Gospel lesson.
I was done with Sunday School, I decided.
Not long after that, I was confirmed, and if God noticed my truancy, He didn’t say.