Every November, when the leaves turn yellow and the nights begin to draw in, there’s a particular sort of grey, windy, serious afternoon that takes me right back to high school.
Along with a dozen of my fellow students, I spent the fall of my senior year preparing for the annual conference of MOAS, a mock diplomatic organization in which teams of student delegates represent the nations of the Western Hemisphere. I interviewed for the team on a whim, looking for something to fill up my schedule, never dreaming what it would come to mean to me.
Our team was assigned to represent the U.S. that fall of 2001. Mr. Walker’s English classroom was our headquarters, and we spent hours hunched over particleboard desks, heads bent over thick black binders filled with forests of paper, learning terms like rapporteur and communiqué and secretariat.
We drafted formal proposals and learned the rules of table discussion, dragging our desks into a wonky circle and holding mock debates: “Point of order, question to the speaker directed through the chair.” Along the way, we worked physics problems and held economics study sessions and piled into each other’s cars at lunchtime, grabbing burgers or tacos or sandwiches in our 55-minute escapes from campus.
The old-timers, like my best friend Jon, told stories of past conferences and explained to us newbies what to expect. We learned salient facts about various Latin American countries, most of which I have now forgotten. Walker warned that as delegates representing our own nation, we would be seen by other teams as the heavyweight, worth taking seriously but not always popular. (It was my first indication of how the U.S. is often perceived by the rest of the world.)
September 11, it need hardly be said, would have changed all our lives, irrevocably, forever. But it had a particular effect on this group of serious high school students in a mid-size West Texas town. We watched the news and read the headlines obsessively, worrying over what this meant for our country and our futures as adults, but also for our immediate futures: our trip to D.C. and the revisions now required (if we went) to accurately represent our country, in deep shock and mourning.
After days of holding our breath, we learned that the conference was still on, and by a tremendous diplomatic feat of his own, Walker persuaded most of our parents to let us go.
As the trip approached, we received detailed briefings: conference schedules, travel itineraries, handwritten packing lists, most of them headed by Walker’s no-nonsense black capitals. The packing list was divided into casual, semi-formal and formal “occations” – my friend Sarah’s handwriting joyfully misspelling the same word over and over again. After Walker advised us girls to “pack a little black dress” for the conference Gala, we met in the hotel lobby to discover that nearly every female in the group had bought or borrowed a little black dress. Somewhere there’s a photo of us, glittering and unsteady in our high heels, teetering on the edge of an exciting evening and also of something infinitely more huge and terrifying: adulthood.
Jon and me at the Gala, and yes, I’m wearing a little black dress.
During that week of mock diplomacy, I learned a few things: one, I didn’t want a career in this field. I am not interested (part of me already knew this) in spending my days arguing with a roomful of colleagues and strangers. Walker slipped me a note during one lunch break, after catching sight of my tense expression, that read, in part: “Knowing what you don’t want is as important as knowing what you do.” I have carried those words, and many of his others, through thirteen years and two countries and half a dozen jobs.
That week, I also learned how to cook in a tiny hotel kitchen, how to wear a suit with heels, and how to dance the Cotton-Eyed Joe with gleeful abandon under a roomful of bemused non-Texan eyes. I did not learn how to tie a necktie (not for lack of trying), but I learned to knock on the door of the senior boys’ suite when I needed a can opener, help with last-minute proposal revisions, assistance in tying said necktie, or simply an encouraging word. (Jon, well-spoken MOAS conference president and endlessly patient best friend, came through every single time.)
I also learned how to navigate a big city on my own for the first time, tramping around the tangle of streets that connected the OAS building to the edge of Georgetown, where we were staying. I waited for Jon after the sessions ended every night, shifting in the high heels borrowed from my mother, feeling the city’s pulse under my feet as we walked through the dark streets to our hotel. Under the city sky, crisscrossed with floodlights, we discussed committee politics and personal dramas, but we also caught glimpses of our future selves: the adults we would become long after we had left high school and MOAS behind.
These days, I hurry along sidewalks in a different city, my mind full of to-dos and writing projects and social obligations. I don’t often pause to wonder at my grown-up life; most of the time it is simply the life I’m living.
But every November, the grey skies and brisk winds bring me back to that week long ago: hovering on the edge of adulthood, nervous, exhilarated, plunging into unfamiliar, exciting territory. The world opened up for us during those days in D.C., shifting to allow us a peek into our own futures while we played at being adults. We headed back to the safety of parents and school and home, but nothing was quite the same. And every autumn, I walk under the grey skies, and remember.
(Top image from oas.org)
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