The Boy In and Out of the Bubble: How Connecting to Oneself is Part of Connecting to the World – NSSM2020

Guest Post by M.Evan Wolkenstein

When I was sixteen, I joined my school’s environmental club. We were trying to save a “green space” (really a vacant lot) downtown. It was home to monarch butterflies in migration, and the club urged local residents to take action to protect the habitat. My parents were shocked: until this point, though we actually lived on five acres of prairie flowers, buzzing wings and birdsong, my best friend was the screen. I’d always preferred the bubble of video games and television to the real world of mosquitoes and mud. After a day at school, feeling awkward and out-of-place, I’d never wanted to wander miles of trails that went nowhere. 

I didn’t want to get lost…I wanted to lose myself. 

But high school was a time of finding: learning to appreciate others for who they are, and appreciating myself, as well. It’s no coincidence that my love of nature began to flourish around the time I began to venture out of the bubble.

This experience became a major part of Turtle Boy. 

The main character, Will, is a lot like I was. He shuts himself off from others as a way of protecting himself, and he loves only two things: turtles, and the Back 40, the nature preserve behind his school. The Back 40 is a kind of symbol – it represents Will’s true, inherent, beautiful essence – his dignity, before bullying and his unfortunate nickname ground him down. Outside of the Back 40, however, 

Will is at first cold and callous when it comes to the needs of others. The Back 40 is his bubble, a way of hiding from others, from the world. 

It’s fair to say that Will needs the Back 40, but he does not yet love the Back 40. He’s not ready to care for others, to love them for who they are, to love himself for who he is.

That new level of growth will require him to learn empathy for others, and this could come from his relationship with the book’s pseudo-antagonist, RJ. RJ is an older teenager, a charming extrovert, a punk-rock drummer, and a shut-in a hospital room. Will can’t escape RJ, and RJ can’t escape Will. As the two grow closer, Will has the chance to feel the world from RJ’s perspective. He begins to appreciate all the things he takes for granted: the freedom to ride a rollercoaster, the ability to go to a school dance. All the things he’d avoided for years become precious when seen through another’s eyes. And this, in turn, helps will to see himself for who he really is. 

This is the nature of childhood and emotional development. For some young people, stewardship over the Earth comes naturally – perhaps through effective and powerful role modeling. But for many, caring for the world, and caring for others, is a step in a process that comes as one part of an equally important growth trajectory: true caring for oneself.

Will has the chance, through his friendship, and through the baby-steps of devoting himself to another’s needs, to appreciate his own inherent worth. And with this comes a genuine connection to the world. The same was true for me.

I visit the “Back 40” often. I live 2,000 miles away from the Wisconsin prairie that I avoided for my first thirteen years, and which I began to protect in high school. But I live on the edge of a vast, rolling nature reserve, and I bring my two-year-old daughter there. I teach her to smell the flowers and not to pluck them, to point to the bugs but not to poke them. I want her to feel connected to the Earth in a way I didn’t when I was Will’s age. My feet walk the Northern California trails, but my heart and my memories return to the five acres of green space around my childhood house. 

If I could go back to Middle School and find 13-year-old me cloistered in the library during lunch, or sunk into a video game after school, I’d show him pictures of my little girl, my wife, the people I devote each day to. I’d tell him about being a teacher, working with kids who, like him, feel lonely, isolated, and feeling defeated. He’d see how I give tzedakah to humanitarian and conservation causes. He’d see that I’ve written a book about the shell he wears, the shell we all wear, and the way we can make our world wider by connecting with others.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, that very day, he would take the bus home from school and, bursting the bubble, he’d amble straight into the pathways behind our house, feeling the presence of life around.

 I hope that Turtle Boy will bring many young readers on that same vital, quiet journey, connecting us together and to the Planet we ShareTurtle Boy is published on 6th August by Usborne ISBN 978-1474981385

The views expressed in this post may not truly reflect those of the FCBG.

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