Friday, July 6, 2007

The Happy Camper by Becky Tuch

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and I am in a bar. I am drinking white wine, staring at a horrifically garish electonic red eyeball on the top floor of Charlie’s Kitchen in Harvard Square. I’m with a friend who is flirting with the bartender. Aside from the three of us, there is no one else in here. The air conditioning is on full blast, so cold my gums are freezing and I wish I had a winter coat, though it’s the end of June.

After about an hour, I leave the bar and get on the T to meet my ride. Tonight, I am going to a potluck hosted by the director of my new summer camp. Yes, I am to begin work at a day camp on Monday. How I will pull this off is still a mystery. I am drunk in the middle of the afternoon and I am lonely, frightened and more confused about the direction of my life than I have ever been. My roommate and I have been fighting. My boyfriend and I are “on a break.” I need to find a new apartment. I am absolutely fed up with waiting tables and don’t know what to do next. The novel I’ve been working on for the past three years is going nowhere.

Yet by Monday morning, I will be expected to smile and encourage budding young minds to write stories, to create characters, to participate in this fiction workshop. How, I wonder, can I even feign pleasure over writing when I feel so heartbroken and downtrodden over the whole enterprise of writing--of living--altogether?

My ride comes to meet me in front of the Somerville theater. She is a soft-featured attractive brunette with a bright smile. Somehow, I feel even drunker at this moment, and suddenly more exhausted.

“I’m Kate,” she says. “It’s so nice to meet you.”

“I’m 27 and I’m terrified,” I want to say. But I don’t, of course. We shake hands and she starts driving.

“Are you excited about orientation tomorrow?” she asks.

“Orientation,” I repeat. I had not remembered anything about orientation. All I could think was that camp would start on Monday. But that’s right, we have a two-day orientation tomorrow and Friday. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten this. What kind of counselor will I be? What kind of human being am I? How could I begin this new job at a summer camp and not even get the dates right? How could I be drunk for my first meeting with all the other counselors and camp staff? No wonder I’m aimless and adrift.

“Yeah,” I say, plucking at the strap of my seatbelt. “I’m totally excited.”

**

There are moments in life when I just glide along, and the fact that I’m alive and doing things does not occur to me. That’s how it should be. I work, I cook, I get lost in each moment of bustling activity.

But then there are the days when I’m aware of every moment, every second as it stickily clicks past. And I don’t know how I’ll get from this second to the next. It all seems so terrifying. Not knowing where to work, where to live, whether I’ll succeed or fail at the things I want to do most, whether the people I love will really love me back. I feel too young and feisty to ask for help, but too old to still believe I can do everything my own way.

I manage to survive the car ride, and then I survive the dinner too, drinking a little more wine and spending as much time chewing as possible. Conversation is stiff and tense, but I do survive.

I even survive the first couple hours of orientation the next day. The camp director’s voice travels in and out of my ears as I struggle to hang on to the basics. This is the art room. And the computer lab. There is the courtyard. Don’t mind the construction. You’ll have to make sure your campers are with you at all times on the way to the pool. Each computer has internet access. This is the auditorium. That is the cafeteria. The soda machines don’t work. There is always a salad bar at lunch.

But later that day, the camp director places the counselors in random classes so we can each get a taste of what other people are teaching. I am placed into a class that could not be farther from who I am or what I’m about: Afro-Caribbean Dance.

I would laugh with ironic self-deprecation if my legs didn’t actually feel so stiff and heavy, my brain so dense and thick. They want me to dance?

I spend the entire fifty minutes of the class thinking of excuses for why I should stop dancing. I have bad knees. My ankle hurts. I have my period. My father is very sick (which he’s not.) I’m “on a break.”
But meanwhile, I’m still dancing. Or, to be more accurate, I’m lifting my feet up and putting them down and lifting my hands and dropping them one beat or two around the time that everyone else does the same.

Then I learn that tomorrow we will be performing our dance routine on stage. Ha! I almost cry. But it’s not a joke. Not only do I have to endure this torture of being forced to dance now, but tomorrow I will do it in front of an audience. Then, on Monday, when camp starts, I will have to perform again, this time in front of the entire camp.

“Believe me,” the dance teacher assures us. “The campers are more afraid to be here than you are to be performing.”

“No,” I think. “I’m not quire sure that’s possible.”

**

But then something happens. Monday. The campers come. And I just start faking it. But no, that’s not right. I’m not quite faking it. I am genuinely happy to see them. Children. Little people. Shy small creatures. Mini-humans.

They come spilling out of their cars and their school buses and they are looking so scared, so I put on my biggest smile to show them that I am not scared. I can’t be scared. I am their counselor. Suddenly, it’s not about me and everything I’m afraid of. It’s about them, and being confident and enthusiastic for them. It occurs to me that this must be the feat that parents pull off all the time, putting their own personal grievances aside in order to ask Callie if she remembered her tennis racket today and to make sure Betty got into the classes she wanted and to find out if Janie likes to bring her lunch or buy it in the cafeteria--the little questions that become so petty to adults but so, so meaningful to these curious, shy little people.

Each counselor is assigned to a group. Or, as the camp calls it, a “Groupie Group.” I have the good fortune of getting all girls, and they’re all around ten years old. I make fast friends with a camper named Enid.

“Do you like to write, Enid?”

“Yes!” she says. “I love love love love love love to write. I write poetry and I write stories and I’m writing a novel.”

“Wow!” I say.

I’m not even jealous. How could I possibly feel writer-envy for this kid? She loves to write. I hope she writes a billion novels. I hope she publishes everything she writes. I’m simply happy that she has a hobby, that she happens to have the same hobby I had when I was her age.

“Are you writing a novel now?” I ask.

“Yes! It’s about gypsies. There are lower-class gypsies and middle-class gypsies and upper-class gypsies…”

Now a small laugh slips out. A ten-year-old with class consciousness. This is going to be a very special camp.

“Does your book take place in Eastern Europe?” I ask, toeing the line a bit further, to see how rigorous her little mind can be. “That’s where gypsies are originally from.”

“No,” she says. “Not there. But in this kingdom that I made. But the kingdom is really part of this trilogy that I’ve been working on.”

“Cool,” is all I say. “A trilogy.”

**

The image that keeps returning to my mind is of an egg cracking open. I know it’s their brains that are supposed to be the eggs, nurtured and cared for to one day crack open into fine young adult minds. But that’s not how it is. I am the eggshell cracking open. Little by little, these kids are teaching me about everything I forgot.

In my Writing and Illustration class, I tell them to choose a character to be the subject of our story. One group comes up with Maria the Dolphin, who is distraught because she’s trapped in a cage too small for her. Another group comes up with Bob the Bulletin Board, miserable because he spends his life being continually stuck with pushpins. That is to say nothing of the Imaginary Penguin, or The Frozen Dragon who battles the mighty “Sir Land Sir Lot.”

They care about animals and they care about the environment. The older kids care a great deal about the upcoming presidential election. The younger kids care about the small things that happen every day, in all their classes, to their friends, to their counselors, to the environment and to our country.

Naturally, these are special kids. They come from good homes and most of them go to private schools during the year and they are lucky.

But I am the lucky one for getting to be around them everyday.

I tell all the girls in my “Groupie Group” that I will be getting on stage to perform. Not only will I be performing, but I will be dancing.

“I am a terrible dancer,” I tell them. “They made me take Afro-Caribbean dance and now I have to perform the number. You’re all going to laugh at me.”

Enid is sitting right next to me. She pats my arm and looks earnestly into my face. “Oh,” she says. “We won’t laugh at you! We’ll say, ‘That’s great! You tried!’”

I laugh. She asks me what’s funny. I tell her nothing.

But it’s everything.

Hey! That’s great! You tried!


Becky Tuch
July 5, 2007

7 comments:

Whitney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Whitney said...

Becky,
**sorry about that deleted post... I had a huge typo and couldn't figure out how to edit..**
What a great post! I too would have made up reasons I couldn't dance...we actually had a West African dance class at my college, which I never took (too scared) that was supposed to be amazing. The teacher was constantly yelling at people to "use their butts more." Looking back, I wish I had done it--tell us how the performance goes!

The Writers' Group said...

Becky, I don't know who you are where you've been, but I do know you have an incredible voice and you're going places. What are you writing? When will it be ready (no pressure)? When can I get my copy? I love, love, love your writing. Normally, I'd never read a post this long, but...Gosh, you're good.

Amy

Sally said...

I think that your writing ability is obvious. But I think that the teaching ability is evident as well. To be genuinely curious about the kids and enthusiastic about their products and strengths, and then to get their support and sympathy…You say that they are lucky to be in their situation, but they are also lucky to have you as a counselor!

Have a great season and best of luck in your other situations…

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Becky, I love this--your voice is honest and open and hopeful (kind of like, Enid, I think). I hope you'll have more camp reports.

Luke said...

Big fan :)

maggie said...

Becky, I love your blog. You are a wonderful writer. It's a rare writer who can make me laugh out loud. You did, and then made me tear up too. And as the worst dancer in the world, I empathized completely with your predicament. I would have fled! The fact that you stayed and made such a beautiful piece speaks volumes.

And speaking of volumes, keep going!

Love,

Maggie
Park Slope