Monday, June 21, 2010


I slept really poorly last night for the first time in months. Usually I am so tired that I simply crawl into bed and wake up the next morning, usually with a considerable amount of amazement at the too-quick passage of time. Last night, however, was the night before I started my new job.

I have a long history of summer jobs, most of which end up being meaningful in some way with a great deal of challenges throughout the actual term of the job. But it has been a long time since I was nervous enough to lie awake.

The summer after freshman year, I arrived at Cedar Point Amusement Park to work as a ride operator. I was completely unprepared for the brutal nature of this job- not just physically, but mentally as well. We stood in the sun for 14 hours a day, bending over rides and bucking/unbuckling seatbelts and speaking into crackling microphones. We were treated inhumanely and scheduled incorrectly and woken up nightly when someone pulled the fire alarm. We were exposed to the very worst of human resource practice, and told that if we didn’t fulfill the terms of the contract, we would not get the bonus pay that brought us up to minimum wage. I met some interesting people, and many friends from around the globe that I still keep in touch with. And I learned that I will never again stand for such injustice both to myself and my coworkers, a skill that ended up being a benefit later on.

The summer after sophomore year, determined not to end up at a place like Cedar Point (a rather rash decision), I didn’t get a job before school was out at all. This ended up working perfectly because it was the month my grandmother was diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer. I got a position at a haphazard day camp in the city of Durango, Colorado, and moved across the country for 3 months to help care for her. When she died 3 weeks later, I found myself with an entire empty summer. I planned activities and sat in parks and played on playgrounds. I hiked dangerous trails with kids and endured intense heat and blazing sun and soothed angry parents. But I did it all in a setting of such beauty and contentment, and it was good. I learned that the quality of life matters just as much as the job.

The summer after junior year, I worked at a summer program for “at-risk” high school students. The goal of the program is to expose them to college work and life, and provide an opportunity for them to pursue higher education. I was responsible for the care of what ended up being nearly 40 girls, and nearly as many problems. I played the role of counselor and mediator and friend and nurse. I met the toddler children of my high school babies, and I listened to girls talk about abuse. I broke up fights and talked about safe sex and took my kids to where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about his dream. And I played advocate for my girls in every way imaginable- from other high school students, from the system that was failing them, from inappropriate counselors, and sometimes from themselves. And I learned that nobility of purpose sometimes overshadows comfort.

This summer, I am working with a group of mostly white, middle/upper class children who have it all. And they are beautiful, but I found myself worried. I was worried that I wouldn’t like them. This is an awful thing for a teacher to say, but I lay in bed last night and worried that I would hate this summer because I would dislike my kids. Let’s face it; day camp is not really that fun if you are not still going to bed at 8:30. Moving non-stop from art to kickball to swimming to lunch to drama to baseball while dripping sweat and trying desperately to reapply sunscreen is not how I would choose to spend my day. Except for the kids. The campers are always the redeeming factor. And I was worried that this time around there would be no redemption. I was terribly wrong.

I have one camper in particular that I was worried about. Let’s call her Munchkin #1. I have never met a more defiant six year old child in my life. My magic just didn’t work with her the first time we met, and I dreaded this day. I was intimidated by her messy blonde hair and her fierce green eyes and her missing teeth. And I thought about Romania. And I thought about the difficulty of classroom management when I DO speak the language and know the culture. And I thought about Munchkin #1, and imagined her replicated in the body of a six year old Romanian girl, and then I imagined myself failing as her educator. And I got worried.

But today, I had my best ready to go. I stepped up the magic, and Munchkin #1 came around. We are going to be best buddies very soon. And she looked at me with those intense eyes at the end of the day, and she grabbed my hand, and I realized that I couldn’t ask for a better life.

And Romania- that will sort itself out. Because I will meet new people and experience new things. And I will have a quality of life in a place of new wonder and immense beauty. And I will have a meaningful purpose. So my little Romanian munchkins, be prepared. Because I will work my magic on you too.

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