Appreciating It All

I entered the week as an Indiana Jones figure. I arrived a day late to the student council leadership camp, having been stuck the day before in a Miami airport returning from a week of liberating the children of an exotic third world island. The camp had been informed Sunday night that I would be arriving the next day, since I had called ahead to say I was getting back late from Haiti.

I got there shortly before lunch on Monday, and when we ate in the cafeteria of the college which was hosting the conference, everyone was eager to hear about my adventures once they realized I was “the guy from Haiti.” I had taken along a selection of my photos from the trip and promised to show them to several girls who asked to see them.

That spring, when I was informed that I was being sent for a week of camp, I was nervous—council members are notorious for being snobby. I worried how well I’d fit in and, more importantly, if I’d have much fun.

It was this immediate interest in me, however, that calmed my fears. Here was a group of ninety-some student leaders who were well-respected and liked in their schools, mostly because they respected and cared about others a great deal. They intrigued me, and it meant a lot that they were interested in me as a unique, idiosyncratic person.

I guess that I often look at the social misfits in school as misunderstood, but I learned during the week that the most popular and esteemed students also face this problem. I went in expecting a gathering of stuck-up preps, but left the week wishing I could stay just one more day.

One of the reasons for the great week was that most of the girls at the camp were attractive, if not downright hot. It’s well known that were Gallup polls to be taken for high school elections, looks would be a leading qualification for the girls. The ratio was in favor of us males, nearly three to one. We basked in it. We were suave as heck: opening doors for the girls, jotting them notes, taking empty lunch trays. I still hear their delighted squeals when they looked out their second-story dorm windows one night to see all us guys on the lawn crooning, “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling,” and I see our smiles as we returned to our rooms, telling each other, “Tomorrow we’re gonna get a piece.” We never did, of course, although a couple guys were rumored to have gotten a kiss, but we kept pouring it on, and the girls, unaccustomed to such treatment, soaked it up.

It was during this week that I encountered my first truly appreciative audience. My second night there, Tuesday, we had a camp-wide coffeehouse in the college’s basement pub. After several Chicken Soup selections and a couple genuine pieces—songs backed with guitar strumming, mostly—I sat on the stool before the mike and kicked off my turn with Poe’s “Annabel Lee” from memory, which I followed with a reading of Dick Allen’s “The Cove,” and my own “Embracing, though Little Wiser.”

I felt as if I had exposed my soul to the world in an act of complete trust and had not been let down. I had let the cat out of the bag—I am human, too—and my audience had remained bona fide confidants.

On the closing night, we held vespers. I read “Israfel,” another Poe poem, followed by the poem I had written the night before at the prompting of several new friends. The poem focused on how my childhood dreams to be a knight had matured with me to a deep appreciation of the beauty that already surrounds me. I talked about my trip to Haiti—about how the children were beautiful if you looked into their wide eyes, and how radiant human life is. I reflected on my time in Haiti and at the camp to show how beauty transcends usefulness and exists because life creates it.

A youthfulness pervaded the camp throughout the week with its hormones, idealism, and unhindered enthusiasm. The world was ours to conquer in love, and we as leaders of a new generation had the power to do it.

Earlier the day of final vespers we held an outdoor relay competition. Donned in my green shirt like my teammates, I was ready to do my part in the food-eating relay. One of six team representatives would run up, grab a random food item from a plastic grocery bag, and shove it down his throat as fast as he could. We could only have a drink once all the food was gone.

I picked the pack of peanut butter on cheese cracker sandwiches, and opted to throw three in my mouth and then worry about chewing. My body struggled, with little success, to make enough saliva to handle the mouthful of dry crackers on demand. Caught up in the excitement and frustration, I started shaking. I was fine, but my hands and body shook to the point that I worried one of the counselors.

It wasn’t until later, when the school year began again, that I realized how weak our beauty is, how vast the gap between reality and our dreams. I believe the world is ours to turn upside down; beauty needs only the eyes of a beholder. But I cram too many crackers into my mouth, and I shake beyond my control.