Essay:One Place in All the World (Alder Fletcher)

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One Place in All the World by Alder R. Fletcher

When Sean Campbell told me to select one event that had the strongest pull on my life, my mind raced for about half a second before I knew what to write about. There’s a place, you see, that changes everyone who goes there. It’s the kind of place that turns shy people into stand-up comedians, drives arrogant geniuses to humbly realize there are hundreds in this very country that do them better, and brings even the toughest, most grimly-calculating mind to tears. The quote, I believe, goes like this: “When you arrive, you never left. When you're there, it lasts forever. And when you leave, it's been no time at all.”

The Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth summer program I attended for three years gave me multiple opportunities to make an entirely different person out of myself. When I entered CTY in 2007, I thought I knew what I was getting into. Three weeks locked up in a classroom, reading about etymology? It sounded terrible, the worst possible way to spend a summer. I tried moping and being reclusive, as was my sordid custom at the time, but I found eventually that, as hard as I try to keep them closed, my eyes always end up opening. And when they finally did, I was exposed to a wonderful world full of people smarter, kinder, braver than any I had ever met. Despite my attitude upon arrival, I found by the time the camp drew to a close that returning home was my chief regret. From then on, I was frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t interact with my local friends on the same almost-mystically-clear level as I found so easy to do at CTY. For the school years following the sessions of summer 2007 and 2008, the thought of eventually returning to that wonderful place drove me through the subdued livelihood of Homer. But eventually, such a comforting thought would be brutally removed, and so it was this summer.

Immediately upon returning to the beloved site at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles for the 2009 session - which was to be, I knew, my last session, as I am now too old to attend another - I was relieved to find that all things were, once again, as they should be. As the nineteen short days of this wonderful lifestyle flew by in a blur of joy, love, and emphatic discussion, I found myself making even stronger ties with my fellow youth elite than before, more intrinsically-powerful, longer-lasting bonds with my classmates and acquaintances than any I had ever been able to form while living in Homer. For three weeks, I argued ethics, pretended to be drunk, fell in and out of love and back again, staged epic Wiffle bat duels, and gained a cult following, doing my panicked best to pack in all the memories I’d need for the rest of my life. All of this took place in less than three (read: <3) weeks, which far too soon catapulted us into our separate lives, more than likely never to see one another again. It felt like a graduation without the promise of coming back to visit the place we all knew was home. The last dance, the last song, was the most heart-wrenching event I had ever, have ever witnessed. When we formed the final circle for American Pie, I was for the last time surrounded by the three hundred people that I knew best, the only people who had ever, have ever known me for who I am, the people who looked up to me for three years, who I would look up to for the rest of my life.

Goodbyes forever made their icy sting, eyes red from crying made contact for the last time. Even knowing many of us would see each other the next morning didn’t stop the inexorable tide of life drawing ever closer that moment to pulling us apart. And indeed, when I rose at six in the morning on August seventh to join my fellow soon-to-be-alumni, everyone’s tears were well cried-out, and a tide of reminiscent solemnity instead made its slow progress through a group of students, sobered adolescents watching the sun rise and at the same time willing it to slow down, to halt the path that would eventually send us all away. Feeble music played over a pair of dejected speakers, cushioning the sound of empty promises and stories of the golden age we would all soon be leaving behind. The world’s next generation of geniuses perched on the bluff overlooking a desolate portion of Los Angeles, swatting ants and wishing the moment could last forever, even though, by our shared and luckless lore, it already had.

I stepped on a shuttle bound for the LAX airport a mere six hours later, after watching my classmates and friends drop off one-by-one, swept off to their ports of harbor; some eventually to return, and some like me, never to truly come home again. A fellow nevermore joined me on a plane set for Seattle. Our friendly, vaguely nostalgic conversation wouldn’t have looked like commiseration except to the closest observer. We parted ways with our lingering hope rapidly filling every pore not already consumed with grief, making desperate, but solid plans to visit each other as oblivion drew nigh. And so it always was with CTY; some part of it always seemed like it would last forever, and when it didn’t, we would make it so.

I crawled out of the airplane and into the town I had called “home” for the thirteen years of I had lived before finding out what the word really meant. Taking stock of my souvenirs, I found a signature on a pant leg, a purple fingernail, and the H1N1 virus were all I had to remind me of the best days of my life. Eventually, other reminders found their way into my hands; a few T-shirts, a pale blue lanyard, a social networking site filled with photos. But the damage was done. I was forced once more to come to terms with what I realized was the only reality I had known for most of my life, but now it was somehow uncomfortable and foreign. I knew why, of course - returning to Earth from Paradise would have been so pleasant - but it still seemed strange that a whole wonderful reality, the one place in all the world where I had been truly happy, the one place that could make me homesick for 49 weeks out of the year (and now, I mused, for the rest of my life), could truly be taken from me forever by a bus and two planes.

I decided to think about it later; piece together the shattered life of those fifty-seven days spread out over three years, find out how a place where I’d spent only one percent of my life could be so important. I thought I would try to figure out how having lived this life would affect my future, what lessons I really took from it, which people impacted me the most. And now that I’ve been given the chance to do so with this essay, to relive the most profound moments of my experience, I feel like it could all start up again with just a few more words. But I have to remind myself, now and forever, no matter how many winter break visits I make, no matter how many silly Facebook notes I write, CTY will always be one place in all the world that I belong, one place that I can never be.