Natural Highs

In which our heroine plays role model for a group of delinquent girls. Sort of.


in Archive


Right before the girls in the house started peeing in each other’s shampoo bottles, we went on a wilderness retreat. It was not a good time at the group home where I was working. We were understaffed and the house was, for the moment anyway, filled with the kind of teen girls who possessed enough misdirected rage and disinterest in self-preservation to pee in their roommates’ shampoo bottles.

I did not want to go on a trip to the mountains with these girls. On my 60-hour shifts I had been on enough trips with them — to the YMCA, and the grocery store — to know that this trip would not go well. Managers of both places we frequented wanted to expel us — the grocery store for run-of-the-mill shoplifting and the Y because the girls had repeatedly stolen cigarette butts out of the outdoor ashtrays and tried to smoke them in the adults-only locker room. At the Y, there was also an altercation/possible drowning attempt with a pool noodle in the shallow end that the staff was considering cause for possible expulsion. So this trip, at this moment, was a very bad idea, and everyone knew it, but it was too late to back out from the wilderness school that had organized the Survivors of Violence weekend for us. I was promised a week off from work if I took the girls.

On the way up to the mountains, in the 15-passenger van, the defroster couldn’t keep up with the pace the girls were in- and exhaling at. They were excited. One of the girls helped me wipe the condensation off the windshield. She held a map in her lap but it was more of a gesture because Tina wasn’t capable of navigating.

Back at the house she was fond of getting laundry out of the washer and stuffing it under her pillows while it was still wet. She had been that abused while she was young. And every week when I would try to encourage her to put the molding laundry in the dryer, she would transform from her normal chipper self (she had blond ringlets making her look like a fat teen Shirley Temple) into a teeth-gritting, fist-wielding, wet laundry-hording Shirley Temple.

But on this trip, she only wanted to be helpful. When we drove into a white snow bank and slid on some ice, everyone in the van started shouting expletives. “Be quiet,” I said, and I looked in the rearview mirror. A few of them were sporting the pink bandanas I bought for the wilderness course, as if pink was our gang color.

“Want me to help?” Tina asked.

“No, Tina. Keep your seat belt on,” I said, but she stood up.

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” she yelled. “And stop breathing so much.”

“Thanks,” I said.

When we arrived at the wilderness course, I was happy to be alive, but not for long. We met our leaders, who wanted the group to immediately circle up and play a name game. Some of the girls refused. The leaders were too middle-aged and excited. The man’s name was Wolf. One of the girls got back in the van. But after a half hour, the girls finally circled up and went through the motions.

“This is a magic stick,” Wolf said. “We only talk when we have the stick.” He tossed the stick to a girl. She tossed it over her shoulder. “Fuck the magic stick,” she said.

At the cabin, I put my bag on my bed and came into the girls’ room. Wolf was sitting on the ground trying to get everyone to circle up again. I walked around and reminded everyone to “peer check” each other. They acted like they had never heard of any of that dumb group home lingo. They refused to circle up. Some had oppositional defiant disorder, and others were just relishing the chaos. When two big girls got into a really unbecoming physical fight, the rest of the girls watched and smiled like it was Christmas morning. Wolf got involved physically and then sat back down and talked about his very painful divorce in relation to choices and in relation to that moment and in relation to circling up. “Oh, good God,” I thought, but eventually somehow that afternoon we did make it out to the group initiative course.

The group initiatives were a disaster. “Pretend like there’s lava, fire, or a group of crocodiles on the ground,” Wolf said.

“Fuck you,” one girl said, and left the beam everyone was standing on. Others followed. Most stayed and really pretended like there was lava or crocodiles or fire on the ground. I said, “Wow, you guys have good balance.” Tina said, “You’re being eaten by fire, Emily.” Wolf tried to coerce the oppositional defiant girls into participating in the team-building exercises, and I could hear him talking about his divorce again. Indeed, I felt like I was being eaten by fire.

So at dinner my girls allegedly threatened another group on the Survivors of Violence retreat with violence. Reportedly, they said, “We’re going to kill you” to another group of girls they were passing in the mess hall, plus they hid the other survivors shoes and put snow in them. Wolf said that the organization couldn’t tolerate threats of violence, and he could send us home that very night. He seemed relieved to finally have the power to expel us. His partner tried to smooth things over by explaining that Wolf had worked through a lot of his issues over the years in the men’s movement, but all the drama that day was making him very emotional.

We met with the girls for a long time in their room that night and it became clear that being kicked out of the wilderness school was the realization of a dream for some of them. Others were having fun and wanted to stay. Eventually one of them said, “Look we didn’t do it, but if we did do it, we would be sorry for it, so we’ll say sorry to the girls if that means we can stay.” Wolf accepted that as an apology for the group. I was glad I didn’t have to drive the 15-passenger van back to the group home in the dark.

The next morning it had snowed so much the mountains looked new. It felt like the world had changed while we slept. Everyone kept saying, “I feel like we’re in a different place,” which was good to hear because we needed a fresh start. Tina kept falling into the snow to make snow angels or maybe because her medication was making her dizzy. Who could say? She was so cute when she was not psychotic.

At the high ropes course, everyone put on harnesses and helmets and clipped themselves onto an upper safety wire. That was a horrible weekend, but when I remember those girls, of all the places I could picture them, I prefer to see them up there in the trees. Eventually I saw some of them in the back of police cars, and I visited Tina in a psychiatric children’s ward, sure to bring her the skuzzy laundry I knew she needed.

But up in the trees, walking on tightropes, and jumping from platform to platform, they looked like they knew a thing or two about taking risks. If they got stuck or scared, all I could yell from the ground was, “Jump. It’s safe. Nothing’s going to happen to you,” and because they couldn’t turn around on the course, eventually they just had to jump. There wasn’t anyone close enough to talk to them in a nuanced way about their anxieties, so they dealt with their fears in their own time, and in their own way in order to just keep moving down the course. I was afraid for most of them. Yet I also liked watching them maneuver through all those obstacles while their happy profanity fell down through the trees like snow. • 12 November 2007