Stories from the Field

Armstrong Scholars: The Shirt

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The 2014 Armstrong Scholars

The tradition of disco shirts has always been an important part of the Armstrong Scholars program. They serve Joie’s memory by evoking her love of dance and bold, colorful style. The shirts are harvested from thrift stores and closets by friends of the Armstrong program, and are donated to the cause each year. Armstrong Scholars wear the shirts on trail to protect themselves from sun, bugs, and the monotony of wearing the same outfit for 2 weeks. The shirts can also be a memento of the trip, and a talisman to face challenge with as Scholars embark on new adventures in their lives.

The Scholars of 2014 had a healthy pile of shirts to choose from. Each girl was helped to her own splashy top on our first night at NatureBridge’s Golden Gate Campus by a pod of assigned “personal shoppers” who had to interview their “client” and then make a selection for them based on personality, color preferences, favorite animal, etc. While these shirts allowed each individual to shine in her own right, there was one shirt that brought us all together, and that is the story I would like to share with you today.

The shirt is found!

We found The Shirt at Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. It was our second morning out in the wilderness, and we were all on the fast track to sisterhood. Coincidentally, a brotherhood that had proudly introduced themselves as The Boy Scouts of America had camped near us the previous night. They had departed before us that day, but didn’t quite pack out everything that they had packed in. During camp sweep, one of our scholars, Eliza, discovered what they had left behind.

It was emblazoned with the message “Respect Everyone. Fear No One.” As Eliza revealed her treasure to the rest of the group, they promptly began a thorough investigation of it. They started by smelling it. The consensus? “It smells like respectable teenage boy!” they declared. Despite the fact that we had ten more days of hiking with heavy backpacks ahead of us, it was decided that The Shirt would not be left behind. It would become our group flag.

Armstrong Scholars at Yosemite

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Shirt

The fact that this group could pick up a lost object, bond over it, and turn it into a group talisman speaks to their character. They were so ready to love and laugh and play together. My co-leader, Jen Metes, and I were full of admiration for them from the moment we read their applications, and were blown away by their courage and humor. The muscles we developed during the trip weren’t just from hiking. Our abs gained definition from the amount of giggling we did along the way. 

As the days progressed and our bonds deepened, so did our ability to openly share with one another. One night, we had an especially emotional evening meeting in which we discussed struggles we had dealt with or were currently facing. The tears flowed so abundantly that our Sophie quipped, “Well, I think we’ve done our effort for California’s drought.”

backpacking with the Armstrong Scholars

It is hard to disband a sisterhood after laughing, crying, singing, growing, dancing, and facing our fears together. In an effort to keep our ties strong despite the impending reality of our disparate locations, we turned to our trusty talisman, The Shirt. It was decreed that we would become a Sisterhood of the Traveling Shirt. We all signed it, and compiled a list of addresses. Upon receiving it, each sister would take a photograph of herself wearing the shirt, write in a journal that would accompany it, and include a token from her current location before sending it to the next person on the list. The shirt would start with Eliza, the finder and flag-bearer. I am happy to report that according to Facebook, the shirt has currently found its way to our Jen Chen, who is embarking on her first semester at Yale. Our sisterhood, and the legacy of Joie Armstrong, endures.

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