You could go as high as 30 feet, I’d guesstimate. From the ground, it didn’t look that far — just to the top of a two-story pole. But when you were dangling in a harness hooked onto a rope, being hauled up and up by a team of fifth graders, even halfway up seemed high enough. The feeling of vertigo was enhanced by the fact that you were on the side of a hill, and when you looked forward, the earth sloped away — far away, all the way down to the ocean. It was a stunning view, the bay at Fox Landing framed by the steep cliffs of Catalina Island, with Los Angeles and the rest of the California mainland somewhere out there in the distant clouds. You knew, when you pulled the release cord, that you were going to go swinging out into that expanse, up into the air more than 30 feet above the descending terrain at the apex of your flight. The scenery was going to be epic — if you didn’t have your eyes closed tight because, like me, you’re scared of heights.
But I had to do it. The kids were swinging after all, even though some of them were scared too. I’d coached them to push themselves, to try new things: to snorkel for the first time — shoot, to be in the ocean, to swim, for the first time. If the boy who had such a frightening panic attack when he experienced the novel sensation of his head going underwater that I thought he was having a seizure (he neglected to tell anyone he couldn’t swim), could 10 minutes later be happily splashing along in the shallows, then I could climb that ladder, let myself be pulled up up and away, tug that release cord and swing out into oblivion.
A couple weeks ago, I spent three days and two nights at Camp CIMI with 31 of my son’s fifth-grade classmates. It was a lot better than you’d think. In fact, it was pretty great. I’ve worked with some of these kids for four years now, volunteering in the classroom, helping them with math and writing. Point Fermin Elementary is one of the smallest schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and it feels like a real community. I’ve seen these kids take care of each other in ways that have brought me to tears more than once. At Catalina, they impressed me over and over again. They impressed the CIMI counselors too, with their encyclopedic knowledge of the life aquatic; Point Fermin’s a marine science magnet, and even the college graduates with degrees in biology had a hard time stumping these 10 and 11 year olds.
Though San Pedro’s a coastal town, these are mostly urban kids. Lots of them had never been to Catalina, or camped anywhere, before. But they leapt into new adventures such as kayaking and hiking with great bravery and enthusiasm. Whenever a challenge seemed to be, or became, too much for a kid, no one made fun of him or her — they encouraged each other, and then they had each other’s back. One boy couldn’t pull that release cord and wound up being lowered back to earth. Afterwards, he sat on the ground at the hill’s edge, hunched into himself, sobbing. His friend — a bit of a troublemaker, usually — came over and didn’t say a word, just sat with him, because it’s okay to have limits too.
The kids are also lucky to have a teacher, Ms. Lloyd, who lets them try and lets them fail, who understands the cultural differences of a pretty diverse student body and nurtures their individuality. We parent chaperones were no slouches either. Saeed spent the kayak trip provoking splashing battles, like an overgrown kid. Fortunately, he was not in the same group as Enrique, who couldn’t quite figure out the narrow boat’s balance and managed to dump his kayak not once but twice. Jennifer and I were both slightly panicked at the thought of being pulled up in that swing. But we did it, and after a half-second of panic, it felt glorious to be flying out over that rugged coast.
Lots of LA kids take field trips to CIMI. Lucky them. As we packed our bags to leave, Cole’s classmates over and over told me they wanted to stay. Me, I’m so glad I took the time — and was given the opportunity — to be with these children once more, before they head off to middle school. Watching them walk across the lawn, past the beach, I pictured them 10 years from now, then 10 years after that. Where will they be? What will they be? Who will they be?