Soon, I’m taking J to D.C. for the first time. He’s never been there, and I believe all Americans should go at least once, to wander the Smithsonians and pause at the National Mall and stand in silence at Arlington National Cemetery. And after a decade, the layers of memories from my five trips there are calling me back.
The first layer, from a quick family vacation when I was 12, is overlaid and obfuscated by images of the trips that came after. When did we go up in the Washington Monument? When did we tour Ford’s Theatre? How many times have I watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington? (Answer: not enough. Whatever your politics, it is one of the most deeply moving sights I’ve ever witnessed.)
My last visit to D.C. dates from November 2001, with 25 other students and my favorite English teacher, who sponsored our school’s student diplomatic team. We were representing the U.S. at a Model OAS conference, and we spent the fall semester researching current events and collecting our findings in thick black binders. We learned parliamentary procedure and explored the relationship of the U.S. to other countries in the Western Hemisphere. And then, with the rest of the world, we watched in horror as the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were hit. Underneath our shock and fear, our deep instinctive knowledge that our world would never quite be the same, was a flutter of wondering: Will we still get to go to D.C.?
Thanks to Mr. Walker’s powers of persuasion (he convinced our parents that the heightened security would make D.C. one of the safest cities in the world), we all woke up before dawn on the day after Thanksgiving, and hauled our luggage to the airport where we posed with tired eyes, a few of us holding a huge American flag. We had filled our suitcases with binders and business suits, and every one of us girls followed Walker’s advice to pack a little black dress for the Gala, held at the end of the conference. I had planned to tuck in my recipe for peanut butter kiss cookies, already the team’s favorite snack, but I forgot it, instead calling my mom from the hotel phone and asking her to dictate it to me.
We settled into a string of rooms at the State Plaza Hotel, with narrow kitchenettes and tall windows that gave us views of George Washington University and the edge of Georgetown. We were smart, articulate, well-mannered high school students – but we were also cocky, giddy teenagers, and our excitement bubbled and fizzed over like the champagne we were still too young to drink.
I have almost no photos of the usual D.C. attractions from that week, perhaps because I had walked the Mall, seen the monuments, toured the museums, before. I did love walking those familiar paths with new, dear friends, standing in silent awe at the Vietnam Memorial and looking up to read the words of the Gettysburg Address, half hidden in shadow as huge floodlights illuminated President Lincoln. I remember visiting Kermit the Frog and Dorothy’s ruby slippers at the American History Museum, and I did make a stab at a modern art museum, until I got downright bored and slipped out.
Mostly what I remember is the feeling of utter freedom, the ecstasy of being on my own, in a cosmopolitan city, with a group of the friends I loved best. My dearest friend, Jon, was the MOAS president that year, and we spent hours walking around Georgetown, just the two of us, one sparkling indigo night. I also waited for him every day after the conference sessions ended, tired and rumpled in my suit and heels, but anxious for his company on the short walk back to the hotel. The streets of D.C. pulse constantly with both history and change, solidity and growth, and we felt the city’s beat under our shoes, thrumming through the pavement, weaving itself into our bodies and our memories.
I stepped into adulthood for the first time that week, trying it on for size like the navy-blue high heels I borrowed from my mother. I stumbled a bit, my feet aching from the unfamiliar fit, and when the week ended, I was glad to slip back into jeans and sneakers, to be a teenager again. But in that city where growth and change always agitate under the surface (and sometimes swirl above it), I caught a glimpse of what it meant to be grown up, to explore a city for myself, to walk unfamiliar streets and new neighborhoods until they became, somehow, my own.
I will go back to the monuments and museums with J, pointing out names and plaques, dates and heroes. We will visit the sites that demand a bit of awe, that mark wars and victories, challenges and triumphs, in our nation’s history. But I’ll also take him past the OAS building, down the once-familiar path leading back to our hotel. I will point out those spots too, those streets and buildings, less famous to others but vital to me. I will point them out, and I will say: There. Look hard. Do you see it? This is where I began to make the city my own. This is where the world opened up for me.