True North, the title, was born on a hot day in July, when I found myself at the Owl Brook Fish and Game department with 15 middle and high school girls from my school. Our summer enrichment program, Girls of Summer, focuses on different themes, and on this particular day, our goal was to literally find our way in the woods using a map and compass. Girls of Summer read, write, and hike our way through the White Mountains of New Hampshire which is in our back yard. Lucky us! I learned how to use a map and compass in seventh grade, while orienteering at Beaver Brook State Park as part of our science curriculum in middle school, located in my hometown in southern New Hampshire. Go Tomahawks! But I digress; I don’t remember a whole lot about the adventure other than working in small groups, and I think the first boy I ever really liked was in my group and thereby distracting me from the true task at hand. However, we did not get lost, and it did not seem all that hard to me as a 13 year old.
Fast forward almost 30 years when I am responsible for other people’s children in a similar situation. Sure, let’s do a short lesson on how the map and compass are tools and when used together work even more accurately than a GPS. What about when they are not used or read correctly? And then we, meaning the completely confident Fish and Game fellows, send these 15 girls in groups of three out into a 500 acre wilderness experience armed only with coordinates on a piece of paper, a map, and a compass. Our girls were used to trails and signage in the woods– and me being with them– or my faithful companions and colleagues, middle school science teacher Rebecca and high school history teacher Kelly. This moment was how I imagined parents might feel sending their kid off to sleepaway camp, but worse because I was worried about other people’s kids being lost or hurt. This is a paradox actually because we were being supervised by trained professionals. They did this every day with people and assured us, they had never lost anyone, not for any substantial amount of time anyway. This was not reassuring. I never worried about hiking in the woods with them on a regular basis because I always knew the trail, or Rebecca or Kelly knew the trail.
But when they all came out of the woods having been more or less relatively successful, beaming that they had conquered this life skill, this antiquated methodology for finding one’s way in the woods, I realized that their understanding of magnetic north versus true north was a lot like being a teenager. It’s all truly just a matter of degrees. True North, I shared with them, in those moments just after finishing would be the title of the book I hadn’t even written yet. I knew how it would begin, and I knew about some moments which would fill the middle, but I had no idea how the story would evolve, or end, or even shape the very characters involved.
Then I fell in love with the idea that these girls could and would conquer anything in life– especially if they knew how to survive using a map and compass. We’ve all had those different kinds of compasses in our lives pointing us in different directions. Sometimes we get off track and lose our way; but if we stay aware and observe the land and stars around us, there are signs and magnetic pulls to get us back in the forward direction of travel.