A church Sunday School trip comprised of 4th graders on a Sunday afternoon, with 20 or so of us in a couple of our teachers’ vans. It was near the end of the school year, in late April. I know it was roughly half boys and half girls, but the boys were in one van and the girls in the other, as we were near the peak age of boys and girls avoiding each other without thinking about it much.
The dump had a barbed wire fence around it and a guarded gate. To my almost ten year-old brain, that meant something valuable had to be stored inside. The guards let us in after some discussion with two of my teachers. In just a few seconds, we were on a dirt path between what seemed like gigantic hills of garbage. The teacher in the passenger seat had us roll down the windows. “You need to get used to the smell before we go out there,” he said.
what do we learn when we're learning? what do we gain when we see? why should we seek out the ugliness, when keeping our distance is free?
The year was 1972, and while we were told not to touch anything, we hadn’t exactly made the trip wearing sanitary gloves or anything. We had split up into smaller groups around various teachers, and we were walking around, just looking. And smelling. A garbage dump smell is not one you ever forget.
Still, there were treasures in there. Televisions and radios that had been thrown away, whole. Couches, chairs, beds, dressers. Articles of clothing, some still in the dressers that presumably had held them. All of those were relatively rare, of course, it was mostly food packages, boxes, diapers (a lot of those), and unrecognizable sludge.
We climbed up and down the hills a little bit (supervised, and one at a time with a teacher) and circled around the place, which seemed enormous to my eyes. The teachers were talking to us about what we were seeing, but I don’t remember what they were saying, other than them repeatedly telling us not to touch anything or pick anything up.
teachers swim against ocean tides of haphazard minds
Children tire easily of almost anything that is good for them; I remember being ready to go for a long time before we went. It was growing dark by the time we got back to the church parking lot where my parents were waiting in our old green station wagon. As I approached the car, they had a change of clothes (and shoes) waiting for me. It struck me that they had must have each visited a garbage dump before.
Later that night, after a bath, a sandwich, and some milk, I remember thinking about how cool it would have been to have one of those old radios like I saw at the dump, and that maybe, if I had one, and plugged it in there in my bedroom, I would hear old broadcasts of the Lone Ranger, or the Glenn Miller Band, or reports from the Pacific Theater.
romance lives where our minds find it: bad places, anywhere -- the adventure is in us, externals just are.
Full admission: I do not remember why we went on this trip, or why it was thought relevant to Sunday School. I don’t remember what the teachers were trying to tell us, except (a) touching garbage can make you sick; and (b) it’s illegal to steal garbage, even though, arguably, nobody wants it. I don’t think the latter of those two things was really what they were trying to get across.
Nevertheless, looking back, I learned a lot that day, and a lot of things in my perception of the world changed. Here are few of them:
- People waste a lot of things that still have value. I understood that day why parents never threw away what they might give away, even when the former was more convenient.
- Ugliness has to be experienced; reading about it is no substitute. It has to be smelled, for lack of a better word.
- When we throw things away, they go somewhere. Out of sight doesn’t change their reality.
- Teaching is always worth it, even when they aren’t listening.
- Reality is full of possibilities, and when we divorce ourselves from reality, we miss out on possibilities.
- Maybe if I’d noticed what was going on with girls at age 10, I wouldn’t have been so bewildered by them at age 15.
- Somewhere, across town, there may just be a place I’ve never been, and it’s a whole different world than I’ve ever experienced.