City Girls by Wendy K. Mages

I’m the adult walking at the tail end of a single-file line of about 20 seven and eight year olds. At the front of the line is the Nature Guy. It’s the summer before I start grad school and the city is in the midst of a terrible heat wave. It’s well over 90 degrees in the shade, but we’re about to leave the relative comfort of the shady picnic area to follow the Nature Guy out into the prairie (a dozen or so acres of prairie preserved just outside the city limits). I thought I knew all about the prairie. I’d read Little House on the Prairie before it was even a TV show. I’d spent weeks studying pioneer life, so I’d be prepared to teach these children about what the settlers encountered. But I didn’t have a clue until I was neck deep in prairie grasses.

At the front of the line, I can see Nature Guy wading into a sea of prairie grass until only his head is visible. The grasses are so tall that the kids, following him in a single-file line, almost disappear behind him, as if the prairie is swallowing them up, one by one. There are acres and acres of prairie without a single tree, or road, or even a visible path.

Now it’s my turn. As I step into the prairie grass, a wave of hot humid air hits me in the face and engulfs me. Then I notice the thick damp air is filled with little gnats and other bugs. It feels like the gnats are swarming around my face. Despite the heat, I purposely wore long pants, socks, and running shoes to protect myself against creepy-crawly things, but I didn’t anticipate bugs swarming around my face. This is not my idea of a good time.

I got this job because I’ve been working as a museum educator for the Historical Society and my boss asked me if I’d help out with our summer camp. I’m not really the camp-counselor type. I’m a city girl. My idea of communing with nature is my morning walk through the city parks. I mean I’ve been camping once or twice when I was a kid, but, as an adult, I’m a big fan of flushing toilets, running water, and air conditioning.

The thing about this summer camp is that besides a couple of field trips—like this one to the prairie—most of the camp activities take place indoors in the Historical Society: flushing toilets, running water, air conditioning. So, I agreed. And here I am neck deep in prairie grasses.

Nature Guy doesn’t seem to be bothered at all by the heat or worried about creepy-crawly things. He is happily leading our little parade through the prairie wearing cargo shorts and Birkenstocks, totally unprotected from whatever critters may be hiding in there. So, I say nothing, but I’m miserable.

Then, as if reading my mind, some of the kids on my end of the line begin to complain about the heat and the bugs. I agree with every word and I’d like to say, “You’re so right! Let’s hightail it out of here!” But, I’m one of the counselors, one of the adults.

So, in an effort to distract them (and myself) from the overwhelming heat and humidity, I begin to spew facts about pioneer life:

“Now remember, the pioneers didn’t ride in the covered wagons, they had to walk like this for days and weeks on end.”

“Don’t forget, the pioneers didn’t have cushioned gym shoes, like we have, and the women had to wear long skirts.”

“Just think, we’ll only be here for a few minutes, but can you imagine being out here for days and weeks in this heat? And at the end of the day, they couldn’t go home to flushing toilets, running water, or air conditioning!”

This seems to help. But just as things are starting to settle down on my end of the line, we come to an abrupt halt. It seems there’s some sort of a kerfuffle at the front of the line. I’m not sure what the problem is, until Nature Guy, says to me, “One of the girls is afraid of bugs. Would you mind taking her back to the picnic area?”

“No, no, don’t worry. I don’t mind.” Don’t mind, I’m overjoyed! But the kids and Nature Guy are watching. So, I try my best to appear disappointed.

As the girl makes her way back to my end of the line, one of her friends seizes the opportunity, “If she’s goin’, I’m goin’!”

“Come on girls,” I say, trying to whisk them away quickly before a total mutiny ensues.

As we three city girls happily make our way back to the shaded picnic area, it feels to me as if heavenly angels, disguised as 7-year-old city girls, have come to my rescue. At this moment, I realize I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the peoples of the prairie and what they endured, and for 7-year-old city girls who have the courage to speak up and be heard.

Wendy K. Mages is a storyteller, scholar, and educator who earned a master’s and a doctoral degree in Human Development and Psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a master’s degree in Theatre at Northwestern University. As a Professor at Mercy College, her research focuses on the effect of the arts on learning and development.  In addition to her scholarly research and publications, she performs original stories at storytelling events in the United States and abroad. One of these stories was published in The Journal of Stories in Science. She has also had a triptych of poems published in Scenarioand a 10-word story published Potato Soup Journal.