Unpacking Gide's Suitcase at Camp Hickiwawa
It’s Monday morning and my head is so foggy I can hardly type these words. I just returned yesterday from a weekend with 19 Brownies and Junior Girl Scouts, and 4 other adults. Two nights at Camp Hickiwawa (the name has been changed to protect the location). It was easy to sign up for this event during the summer, when the word “camp” held its seasonal aura and time stretched out before me like the marathon run of a tortoise. But suddenly it was September and I was teaching three classes, answering myriad e-mails about convenient meeting times, and watching my backyard chestnut tree lose all its leaves over a 48-hour period. Whenever a slightly chilly wind blew, I recited to myself the Romantic poet Lamartine’s ode to autumn, "Le Lac" (The Lake—and not Lake Erie), which can be briefly summarized in English as “Hurry! Hurry! Let’s make love before we die!”
In this mood, I packed us up and drove to the elementary school parking lot. Packing was, as always, a symbolic act. Girl Scouts pack a lot of their “gear” in what my daughter Lucy’s troop calls a “sit-upon,” also referred to as a “bucket.” These are big plastic paint buckets, which the girls decorate with magic marker and stickers. When I was first told to provide a paint bucket for Lucy, I cleaned out an old metal one. It took at least 20 minutes of work at the basement sink because the paint (goat’s beard) had hardened and there was quite a bit of rust. I was proud; I truly shone. But when the troop leader saw it, she looked at me as if I were a Martian and handed me a big plastic bucket. She claimed my daughter’s butt would not fit on top of the can and that her gear would not fit inside. I felt like I had been called on in class and had laid an egg.
The sit-upon serves as a traveling chair. Actually, we had no business calling the bucket a sit-upon. The real sit-upon is a cushion made by the girls to put on top of the bucket for more comfort or, according to the Girl Scout official dictionary, “to use when the ground is damp or to keep their clothes clean.” Lucy’s troop had decided to forego the making of cushions in part because the leaders are academics and don’t want to learn to sew. In any event, the bucket sit-upons are important for bonfires and eating smores, especially when the weekend is a “service unit” one, which means that about 120 girls show up from parts of town that you never heard of. The sit-upon is also useful for picnics and for waiting in line. Sometimes it’s useful to hide candy inside, or to try to sneak toads out of the camp.
I’m teaching André Gide’s 1925 novel The Counterfeiters in a graduate course and I needed to finish it by the end of the weekend. It would have to serve as my own sit-upon, although you couldn’t hide a toad in it. No one gave me a bucket and my derrière really is too big for the paint can, but not too big for my copy of Gide -- miraculously, I admit. Yes, I had read the novel before and I had underlined all kinds of passages and made all kinds of notes in the margins using a code that I forgot long ago, but as all literature professors know, it’s hard to teach well when you haven’t read the book recently. I was making headway on underlining whole new passages with violet ink.
It’s a fabulous novel, full of secrets, coincidences, escapades, and adolescents. A bit like a Girl Scout camporee (definition: “A weekend camping event, usually organized by a service unit to serve its members”), with the fictional children being a bit older and a bit more male (Gide liked guys). The previous week I had taught the scene in which Uncle Edouard arrives in Paris by train with a suitcase. Because he is so overwhelmed by a (boy) adolescent who meets him at the station, Edouard absentmindedly crumples up his baggage claim ticket and throws it in the street (he had checked his suitcase because he planned on going to a guys-only whorehouse immediately upon arrival). And who picks up the ticket and claims the suitcase? Well, you’ll need to read the story, but yes, it’s another young guy.
Here’s what goes in the typical Girl Scout bucket/sit-upon: toiletry kit, flashlight, bug spray, sunscreen, one roll toilet paper, water bottle, mess kit, one stuffy. Here’s what’s found in Gide/Edouard’s suitcase: clothes, a wallet fat with money, a newspaper with a letter from a woman tucked in the folds, a notebook with reflections on the modern novel, and a personal journal. I saw parallels; they were coming out of the woodwork. Sitting on my copy of Gide, singing “I Found a Peanut” and being absentmindedly kicked in the arms and legs by awkward prepubescent girls and poked in the face with dozens of marshmallow sticks, I had time to think. The notebook had to be the toilet paper and the mess kit the personal journal. Or the opposite. The toiletries were self explanatory, except that Gide probably did not have SpongeBob toothpaste. The flashlight was purely symbolic and had something to do with the Boy Scouts. The bug spray and sunscreen were a substitution for the fat wallet. And here’s what happened.
When Lucy’s sit-upon was “accidentally” stolen she pitched such a fit that the four other adults gathered round her and screamed at her to calm down. When she finally was able to spit out what had happened they moved, in sync (I stayed put on my literary sit-upon) to the girl she had named and formed a similar circle around her, screaming this time in her ears. That girl blamed another girl, of course, and so the circle of four moved from girl to girl. In the meantime, Lucy found her sit-upon where she had hidden it so that no one would mess with it. When the adults finished the rounds and arrived back at the beginning, I was sitting on Lucy’s sit-upon and reading Gide. They did not dare scream at me.
Traumas, psychological and physical, were piling up. I felt like I was at a weekend-long departmental retreat. Mindy was afraid of the dark and wanted to go home; Kennedy busted her knee and had to be carried around in a cart; Claire joined her after she busted her ankle; Francine had a migraine; Lori made Sarah cry by taking her toad and throwing it into the poison ivy. A big mouse ran across the floor and the entire cabin let out a howl; later, a newborn mouse was discovered, left by its mother surely because of our antics. The girls put it in a box with shredded newspaper (I guess it’s still there).
My copy of Gide was becoming so grimy that I could hardly see to underline anything. But I did find this bit of dialogue. “What is the subject of your novel?” asked of Uncle Edouard, who is a writer. “Nothing,” responds Edouard, “It doesn’t have a subject.” I underlined that passage three times with a Hello Kitty marker before Destiny walked by and dropped a handful of mud on the page, to make me laugh, she said. This interruption gave me time to reflect, so I shoved Gide’s novel under my bottom and held my hand to my forehead. It didn’t take long for me to trace this déjà vu moment about a novel about nothing to its origin: "Seinfeld." I was embarrassed to have so quickly associated Gide’s ideas concerning the modern novel with a 1990s television sitcom. I banished the thought. Destiny came back and said she was sorry and cuddled up in my arms. I rocked her while sitting on the muddy modern novel.
When we got back on Sunday I took a much-needed hot shower and left Lucy with her Dad -- who was napping from his very tiring weekend without us -- and headed to the local public library for a meeting about the impending closure (who says there’s no closure in modern literature?) of the local elementary school. I carried Gide along, not as a sit-upon because I assumed there would be chairs, but as a means of passing the time if I were early or if everyone else was late. I was early. I was astounded at how peaceful and efficient the meeting was, having recently been told to “shut up” by my chair at a department meeting because I was whispering to a colleague. (Next time I’ll inform him of the way Girl Scouts ask for silence, with the Quiet Sign: “The person in charge raises her/his right hand and the Girl Scouts present fall silent and raise their right hands.”) At the neighborhood meeting, people whispered to each other and the rest of us patiently waited to be let in on the secret. And we were let in on it. There were no confidential notebooks, personal journals, or anonymous press releases hiding beneath our butts because folding metal chairs had taken the place of sit-upons.
Try as I might, I could not mold the meeting into a story about nothing: this was about something; it was about our kids, those kids who had cuddled with me, either in tears or with big smiles, all weekend. I swore to myself that I would: carry a sit-upon to the next department meeting, with a tape recorder inside; and go to the next school board meeting and ask that something be done in light of this calamity.
I’ll be there tonight.
Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a Midwestern university.
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