My last day at the place I consider my second home was marked by tears, despair, and sugary fruit juice. It all began at 4 am, when my soul left my body in response to the shrieking of my alarm clock. Instead of promptly returning my head to my pillow, though, I pushed back my sheets and gathered my camp ID, my blanket, and my strength. It was the final day of heaven on earth, of my safe haven, my nirvana. I had been attending CTY, the world’s greatest summer camp, for three summers and making memories every one of the 63 days I had spent there. Yeah, it was nerd camp. You took classes all day and wrote notes and did experiments. But I am a nerd. What can I say? I'm a sucker for spending my summer learning about action potentials of neurons. It’s not every teenager’s dream summer plan, but I loved learning without the pressure of grades and college applications looming over my head like a storm cloud. And the people there are something else. You know when you sometimes think about the perfect friend; someone who shares your interests, is fun, nice, and every other positive adjective you learned in third grade? Those are the people you find there. The experience is three weeks, but the friendships are so intense and burn so bright that they last for years. But now, I was 15 years old and therefore too old to come back. I was going out, aging out, dying out, and today was my last day to live. So live I would, by following the last great tradition reserved for the people who couldn’t return - Passionfruit.
I left my room and met my suitemates outside my door. I had two. One was 4’10 and ready to kick anyone’s ass. The other could run two miles without stopping and could apply makeup better than a professional. They were the best suitemates a girl could get. We all looked at each other for a moment, and our glances spoke louder than if we had shouted. “This is it,” we said, “I can’t believe this is the end.” But we didn’t really say anything - we just silently left the building together.
I feel like I should give some background on what Passionfruit actually is. Camp goers, camp counselors, and everyone in between wakes up at the incredibly reasonable time of 4 AM to sit on the grassy quad outside the dorms (the camp is on a university campus). All of the people who are too old to return the following year (we call them Nevermores) sit in a circle and make speeches about the effect CTY has had on their lives. After they finish, they take a swig of a mystery concoction of fruit juice called the Passionfruit (also, coincidentally, the name of the ritual).
Passionfruit juice is poured into cups and words, tears, and hearts are poured out onto the people. I wondered what the juice was made of as I waited on the damp grass.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the whole thing. Of course, I never wanted to leave camp. I was prone to PCTYD - post-CTY depression. There’s an entire website on it; you can look it up. But the whole ‘speech’ thing seemed a little forced and artificial. I wasn’t planning on making one, actually. I was ready to let the moment and the chance to reflect on the favorite times of my life slip away. But something started nudging at me when the Emperor and Empress (two Nevermores at camp who were “elected” the previous year to be leaders) shouted into the rising sun, “PASSIONFRUIT BEGINS NOW!”
I was struck with an inexplicable, overwhelming sense of community. These are my people, I thought. They are me, in the body of a 14 year old girl who always wore electric blue knee socks, or a 16 year old guy who started an insane knitting fad with the tiny giraffe that the campus nurse taught him to knit, or my bald chemistry instructor who made endless references to Breaking Bad. Of course, they were their own people with their own interests and their own lives, but I saw parts of myself shining back at me in every being on the quad that crisp July morning. There was a sort of morphic resonance, a hive mind, shared between us in that moment.
Our hearts and minds were linked in a way I can’t really explain. So as we all sat in a giant circle to begin sharing our thoughts and drinking our juice, I decided to speak. Except, of course, there was one small problem. I had nothing to say.
I don’t mean that in the nuanced, big-picture way, as if the brutal censoring force of society had silenced my words and thoughts.
I mean I hadn’t prepared a speech.
So when I saw people pulling out pages and pages of handwritten notes, edited in pen and re-edited in marker, I panicked a little, and I started trying to put some words together in my head.
As I was working on this, the first person stood up. Her name was Emily, and she had frizzy hair, endless acne, and glasses the thickness of my hand. She was a person who might be ridiculed for her appearance in her high school, but here, she was the Empress. She spoke and cried and spoke some more, and at the end she said, “I love CTY, and I love the Passionfruit,” (apparently, you have to end your speech with that) and then she sat back down.
Each person that followed her shared their own stories about how this wonderful place had given them hope in hopeless times. Kids talked about deaths of close relatives to a group of around 100 people. One girl even talked about her suicide attempt. Everyone was so comfortable that they weren't afraid to be vulnerable. They unlocked that secret box in their minds full of darkness and bared it for everyone to see. And for every single person, CTY had been the shining light at the end of the struggle, the reason to keep on pushing, because at the end of it all, they would have 3 blissful weeks with most amazing people they had ever met. While everyone talked, I was pondering the profound, eloquent thought: oh, s***.
My life was not an tumultuous, chaotic stream of depression and tragedy. It was fine. I loved CTY, but it didn't save my life or give me my only sliver of hope in a cruel and hateful world. My mind started racing. Maybe I shouldn't give a speech, maybe I should make something up maybe I wouldn't be able to think fast enough and I’d end up embarrassing myself and why didn't I prepare a speech and-
“Sarah?” One of my suitemates, Dani, nudged me. It was my turn to go. All 100 pairs of eyes on me. That’s two hundred eyes sending information to one hundred brains, all of which had the capacity to judge whatever came out of my mouth in that moment. Except… wait.
This isn't that place. It's not a place of judgement or scrutiny or malevolence. It’s my place, of compassion and acceptance. So I relaxed, and I asked myself a question: “What has this place done for you?” And then I answered it.
It wasn't the most well thought-out or most fluent speech. But I talked about why I loved camp, not why I needed it. I talked about my memories, what I loved, what I didn't, what I learned (both academically and morally), the kinds of people I met and the kind of person I became. And then, my face felt wet.
I was crying, I realized. I also realized something else. Just because this program hadn't been my knight in shining armor to the damsel-in-distress of my life doesn't mean I couldn’t get anything out of it. Through CTY, I gained acceptance of myself - of my terrible vision due to constant reading, my ambition (which can lead to disappointment), my flaws, my weaknesses, because I saw them in other people. I wasn't alone. “I love CTY, and I love the Passionfruit,” I said, and then I sat down. It was done. It was over. I drank from my cup. The juice was a welcome taste to my dry mouth and hungry stomach, both sweet and bitter.