Bolt, lock washer, washer, wood, washer, wing nut.
I have been elected Master Builder. I have one minute to view the assembled chariot and memorize the building combinations. As the field house floods with excited junior campers, my team huddles at the start.
“Charioteers, take your mark!”
The gun blasts, and I sprint to pick up the wheels and the windshield. My teammates gather the remaining pieces and start to build. The crowd roars as I jam the long bar into the T-bar. As soon as the chariot is constructed, the wing nuts tightened, we race into the night: one charioteer pulled by six “horse” runners. The race is neck-and-neck as we strain around the torch-lit track. At the last moment, we pull ahead and cross the finish line first.
Camp Kweebec in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, has provided me with lasting memories: stargazing, horseback riding, midnight potato sack racing, and unclogging a toilet only to create a shower in the camp office. But nothing has been more rewarding than winning the Chariot Race. Since I was a little girl, pushed to the back, angling to see, I longed to be a charioteer. As I moved up, bunk by bunk, I inched my way to the front.
Band-Aid, EpiPen, juice box, sling, juice box, blood sugar monitor.
After nine years, I became a counselor this summer. I didn’t know what to expect when the munchkins assigned to Bunk Buffalo came charging off the bus. They resembled the disorderly team from “The Bad News Bears.” I was suddenly responsible for 18 campers with diverse backgrounds and distinct needs: three diabetics, one child with Asperger Syndrome, two campers deathly allergic to nuts, a child coping with divorce, Chinese campers who barely spoke English, and a Star Wars-obsessed girl who spoke like R2-D2.
I was disappointed to see my 10-year-old charges immediately form cliques. I mediated candy wars, hot water wars, and under-the-bunk space wars. I comforted children who felt excluded and faced a “building” challenge more complex than the chariot. How could I make these seemingly incompatible pieces fit together?
It seemed an impossible task, but I knew there was common ground: enchanted Camp Kweebec. My co-counselors and I marched the girls out to the field at midnight in their PJs. We split them into teams, pairing girls who didn’t get along. The groaning began. But when the races began, they forgot their differences and transformed before my eyes. When Ilana tripped during the three-legged race, Makayla gave her a hand. Jaime, normally on the sideline, laughed and cheered for her team. Natalie, who has Asperger Syndrome, excelled in the wheelbarrow race and emerged a leader. The girls smiled endlessly under the magical moonlight.
The next day, my girls wrote on their camp shirts, “There is no Wi-Fi, but our connection is great!” As I doled out medication, administered insulin pumps, and charted blood sugar levels, I enjoyed the new dynamic. At camp you’re safe from the judgment of the outside world. Through shared experiences, the girls learned to love and accept their summer sisters. I am proud of the way I brought my band of misfits together. Giving back to these girls was infinitely more satisfying than winning the chariot race. It is not only the big things you remember; the small moments that make you laugh until your cheeks hurt create bonds that last a lifetime.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.