By Nancy Barnes
The mountains were lovely in the light that followed the dawn. The man who led us along the trail pointed to a giraffe, a calligraphy stroke against the far horizon, then to a herd of bok, much closer, grazing on a hillside. His finger stopped on a reddish brown spot. “Look there,” he said. “That one’s half goat. It was abandoned by the herd when it was a kid so it joined a family of goats at camp. Looks like it’s come back to visit with the bok. ”
The South African teenagers at the camp where I was a counselor had all been affected by HIV/AIDS, many of them orphaned, forced to move from place to place, auntie to cousin to neighbor. I was a white American woman, a college teacher with all the comfort and privilege that suggests. These young people had endured such hardship and loss, almost beyond my imagining.
What did I have to offer them? My assignment at the camp was to teach the kids to swim. I’ve always loved to swim; swimming has gotten me through tough times in my own life. But was that enough? My life was so distant from the lives of the South African campers. I was anxious about the distance between us.
There, in the mountains above Johannesburg, the noonday sun was terrifying. The languages that careened around me at the pool– Xhosa, English, Zulu – left me exhausted. Boys strutted and splashed, shouting to drown out their fears. Thirty campers, one cabin of girls and one of boys, arrived at the tiny pool each hour.
The hour before lunch I was always starving, barely hanging on. I collected mounds of sopping wet towels and hung them to drip on the wooden stakes of the fence that circled the pool. The rusty brown goats that ambled around the cement rim of the pool liked to rub their faces against the towels.
By late afternoon the mountains darkened. All of us, campers and counselors, made our way, single-file, along a dirt path towards a stand of eucalyptus trees beyond the farthest cabin. The eucalyptus were towering mottled trees; they shed a thick, messy carpet of leaves that rustled and crackled underfoot.
Up ahead a dead tree, at least forty feet long, rested in the crotch of a living tree, maybe twelve feet up. The angle was steep. The exposed trunk shone as though polished, gleaming under scabs of bark.
Singing, as ever-present as the mountains, swelled around me. Then the crowd stilled. The camp director began to speak. “You have now entered the panic zone,” he said. “That’s right – the panic zone. For this next activity all of you, not just the children, all of you will walk up that tree. Your fear will teach you the skills you need.”
Huh? The panic zone? All of us? Was he serious? Fear would teach us? I thought I must have misheard him.
The campers couldn’t stand still; they jostled and called out, daring each other to try. A brave young man stepped into the clearing and began to creep up the trunk, his bare feet molded to the bark. My breath caught.
Panic flickered in my throat. I was in my early sixties — there was no way I was going to try that. Wasn’t I old enough to say no? Besides, I stood next to a camp director from the Midwest, a nimble-looking woman in her thirties. Like me, she had come to the camp as a volunteer. “I wouldn’t let my cat walk up that tree trunk ,” she whispered.
I felt myself rooted to the ground. I had never been daunted by the idea of learning something new, or helping others try. Certainly not afraid. Back home, I worked with kids in public high schools in the city and undergraduates at all sorts of institutions. I had experience with the hazards of adolescence, and a special affinity for that age. But rooted there under the eucalyptus, everything felt perilous.
This wasn’t my responsibility, I told myself. The South Africans were not my students. My job at the camp was to teach swimming. Water did not frighten me. I just had to get through the next hour, take some teasing and watch these amazing athletes show off.
Thomas was one of those athletes. He was Zulu, a counselor at nineteen. Tall and skinny and kind, Thomas had a sweet smile. He had been forced to move, alone, into a shack in a township just outside Johannesburg when HIV devastated his family. When he told me his story Thomas stressed how much it had meant to him when he could bring his younger siblings to live with him. His young life had demanded great courage.
One of the first evenings at camp Thomas had noticed that I was awkward and nervous when everyone began to dance. The South Africans seemed to dance as they sang, graceful as floating eucalyptus leaves, from daybreak until bedtime. That night Thomas had pushed through the moving bodies to stand next to me. He knew, somehow, that if I could step with his steps, our hips bumping gently, I would be alright.
Now, Thomas stood behind me in the shadowy grove. “He will love this insane activity,” I thought. This was a man who balanced barefoot on a thin pipe railing outside the dining hall in the first morning light, singing to greet us as we gathered for breakfast.
Through the curtain of trees I could see the figure of the young man edging up the slanted trunk, arms outstretched, teetering, seeming not to breathe as he inched one foot forward, paused, then the other. A group of girls at my side hugged each other tightly. The chanting and goading stilled; low voices encouraged him: “Don’t look down, don’t stop – you’re almost there.” “Beautiful! That’s beautiful!”
Dread settled in my chest. My private fears – being inadequate, losing face in front of the kids — blossomed into fears for them, these teenagers who had already met dangers and borne sorrows almost beyond my ken. I held my breath.
Suddenly a strong dry hand gripped mine. Thomas had stepped to my side, his sneakers silent on the fallen eucalyptus leaves. How did he know I was afraid? How could he know?
I smiled at him. Yelling and screaming erupted as the first climber reached safety and raised his fist in the air. Thomas and I stood still, holding hands.
I smiled again, to thank him.
Thomas did not smile back.
“Nancy,” he said, “I want to climb that tree. I will climb faster than he did. But I don’t know if I can keep walking to get over there.” I felt his arm tremble. “I am so afraid. There might be snakes in this grass, under all these leaves, and spiders.”
“Please don’t let me go,” Thomas said. “I have never been in the forest before.”
About the Author:
Nancy Barnes is a cultural anthropologist who has had a long and wonderful teaching career in college and high school, in women’s prisons, and in Burma, Mexico, and South Africa. She has only recently begun to write personal essays. This is her third publication.