[TW: This article mentions a shooting drill.]
At the beginning of third grade, my teacher Mrs. Sheibels assigned us a project: write and illustrate a mini book about all the places our feet took us over the summer. I remember exactly two of my chapters. First, my feet took me to the hospital, where I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I drew a stick figure version of myself in a hospital bed with an IV machine off to the side, several other stick figures around me with concerned faces. Second, my feet took me to my sister’s 18th birth- day party, where I got to see some idiot teenagers suck helium out of balloons and speak with comically high voices. I attempted to draw that scene, and the sketch bore an unfortunate resemblance to a back alley drug exchange.
Eleven years later, I’ve kept up the habit of dramatic introspection at the close of the summer instilled in me by that project. This summer lent itself to the practice better than most, and it left me with a number of answers to my more existential recurring questions.
At the end of last semester, I sent a hopeful email to the boss of my old high school job at my hometown public library. Some responsibilities were the same as during my illustrious career as a page: returning books to their shelves, making sure everything had been shelved correctly and mending damaged items. I would also help with some aspects of the summer reading program. Along with a building expansion, a number of technological updates like self check-out would be implemented. To facilitate this, every single item in the collection would need its barcode in- formation encoded onto an RFID tag stuck somewhere on its backmost surface.
This job was as monotonous as I can imagine. Remove items from shelves. Place on the cart. Scan each barcode. Stick on an RFID tag. Encode the tag. Replace the item. Mark as tagged. Over and over again, sometimes for seven hours at a time. At first, the sheer drone of the day threatened my sanity, but then I realized that, since I could use my headphones on the job, I could fill my time with audiobooks. My earbuds kept me sane, but the importance of my work kept me going. My job was a pain, but converting the library over to this new technology would have taken unknowably longer without me there, and patrons would be waiting much longer to enjoy its benefits.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to spend the entire summer tagging books. Anyone who has held a conversation with me or seen my dorm room probably knows that I work at a summer camp. Maybe that says more about how much camp matters to me than anything else can. Typically, I head off to camp in the middle part of June and stay there, with a few breaks, until the end of August. This summer, I made the tough decision to commit to only the first three weeks of the season—staff training and two weeks of diabetes camp.
The former involves a lot of group bonding exercises for the counselors, as well as training on how to deal with a variety of challenging situations, from homesick kids to emergencies on site. It’s a bizarre jumble of acting like a kid again without any campers around and being completely overwhelmed by the looming responsibility of taking care of campers.
This year, I felt particularly overwhelmed by this responsibility because, for the first time, staff training involved a real-world scenario active shooter drill. In the past, our plan was to take our campers and hide somewhere. Then, they decided that we should take our campers and run as far into the surrounding forest as possible. When someone starts talking about all the possible out- comes of a violent threat to a summer camp full of children, I get a bit jumpy. When I learn that I’m supposed to herd a group of kids, some possibly as young as eight years old, through the unkempt forest as fast as we can, I get a bit jumpier. Thankfully, there has never been any kind of real scenario like this at camp, but the terrifying truth is that we have to be prepared for it.
To that end, they brought a man into our staff training to don false weaponry as we split into groups and spread out to simulate a real scenario. Full disclosure: Several other staff members and I elected to sit out of the drill and just watch it happen. I learned from experience that even knowing something is fake beforehand does nothing to stop my anxiety when it happens. Not surprisingly, it turned out after the drill was over that the “shooter” was unable to find any of our staff members unless they sought him out (which one did, brandishing a large tree branch). Camp is enormous, and one man trying to hunt down many different groups that all scattered into the woods would have little luck. I guess that’s a com- forting thought.
By far the worst part of staff training is another brand of emergency drills: missing swimmer (MSD) and missing camper (MCD). These are drills for the event that a camper is unaccounted for at the waterfront, and in the camp at large. In both cases, the staff is alerted to the situation by a sound that will cause me anxiety probably for the rest of my life. The waterfront alarm sounded exactly like the beginning of Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire” (a song I can no longer listen to for obvious reasons). Then the emergency bell, an infinitely louder version of our Chapel chimes, rang.
As soon as the alarm sounds, our protocol is the same for both: Drop whatever you’re carry- ing and sprint toward the waterfront. If it’s not a waterfront scenario, someone will stop you be- fore you get that far and give a description of the missing camper and a location to search. In a drill, the camper is played by a staff member. I like to call it high-stakes hide and seek. If it is a water- front scenario, sprint down a rather steep hill to the beach, jump over or duck under the boundary ropes, kick off your shoes and begin sweeping the water. I personally try not to think too hard about what we’re sweeping for. In a drill, it’s usually a folding chair or a car tire. The drill stops when we find everything we’re searching for.
The first time we try the drill, our supervisors show us how to do it and then send all the staff up the hill to wait; they always wait just long enough that we all start to relax. The moment the alarm goes off, all I can hear is blood pounding in my ears and shoes crunching gravel. I see my glasses bouncing slightly as I sprint, which makes me dizzy. By the time I get to the beach and through the ropes, I have a hard time getting my shoes off. In the moments when I’m struggling with the strap of my Chacos, time ticks infinitely faster. We get in line; we sweep the water. In a few eternal minutes, we find everything and the alarm finally turns off. We stand around, bent double and breathing hard, our collective relief nearly palpable.
When I was a camper, I never thought about what would happen in these kinds of situations at camp, or even that anything bad could happen to me there. For about a decade, I went camping with kids like me who have diabetes so I could forget about the bad in the world. I still love camp, but as an adult, it has transformed from an oasis from anxiety into a locus for mine. This is not to say that I never have fun at camp anymore, but just that it’s tempered by the part of my brain that constantly expects something terrible to happen.
Being prepared for disaster is a good thing, but also a tiring one. The fact that I can never remember being worried as a camper means that my counselors were doing their jobs, and I can only hope that I’ve done the same for my campers. Especially when I work at diabetes camp as op- posed to traditional overnight camp, the campers are getting a rare opportunity to forget, even for a short time, about the weighty responsibilities that rest upon them. The first week of camp, I ended up working with a cabin of 10-year-old boys, since we had a shortage of male diabetic staff. I had to wake up and go help my co-counselor with midnight and 2 a.m. blood sugar checks each night, which we do to ensure that the campers remain at a safe level overnight. As always, working diabetes camp was both exhausting and rewarding.
The first camper who came into my cabin was practically glued to his mother’s hip, and I could tell he would have a rough time adapting. I also found out that he had been diagnosed with Type 1 very recently, within the past six months, and had a lot of fear about being without his mom or his normal routine. Luckily, in the first couple of days, I was able to help him adjust by sharing my own experiences with diabetes.
Before the end of the second day, all the boys in
our cabin had formed a deep bond. They encour- aged each other to try new things, and they stayed positive and understanding of each other’s com- fort zones. My first camper of the week fit right in with the group. The boys all cheered for him when he got harnessed up and went on the Giant Swing, which he was originally a little bit scared to try. They all took some truly adorable pictures together during our end-of-the-week celebration.
When his mom came to pick him up on Friday, my first camper of the week got the biggest grin on his face and happily exclaimed, “Mom! Ev- eryone here is my friend now!” I’m not ashamed to admit that I was holding back tears when she came over to tell me how much of a blessing the week had been for her, and how much she’d en- joyed checking the website for pictures of her son. She asked me where they could buy merchandise, and I told her about the Facebook group for camp. Later that same evening, I saw that she had posted on the page. She talked about how utterly trans- formative the experience was for her son, and there was a slew of comments on the thread with parents echoing the sentiment.
For me, this summer embodied the dichotomy between safe, monotonous work and adventurous anxiety. On the one hand, I had my air-conditioned library job, where my major concerns were my tagging rate and which audiobook I should download next. On the other, I had a near constant stream of issues to tackle, logistical concerns to work around and the responsibility to provide care for children. Though both my summer jobs will have a lasting impact on my community, the two places my feet took me this summer are even farther apart than a party and a hospital bed.