“When the bus arrives, be sure to make sure the girls in your cabin feel welcome. This place is highly competitive during the day as you all know, so it is crucial the campers can come back every evening feeling comfortable and relaxed. You’re going to need to help them feel comfortable, and encourage them to be themselves so that they have the best experience possible here.” It was the week before camp began and the Director at Interlochen National Music Camp was speaking to all the counselors from the stage of Kresge, the camp amphitheater. My older brother, Peter, a counselor in the High School boys division, had been sitting next to me.
Although I was excited to begin my first summer as a counselor, the irony of the Director’s guidance did not escape me. I was to have sixteen 16-year-olds in my cabin. I had to make them feel comfortable even as I wondered how they’d react at the first sight of me? It would be important that I be myself to put their minds at ease. Due to the reality of my own physical disfigurement I believed my mission would be less about the girls being comfortable with themselves, and more about them learning how to adapt to a counselor with only four fingers and toes in all.
Was I wrong!
One by one my girls arrived. Several were ballerinas, some played instruments in the band or orchestra, and more than a few came to sing in the choir. From the moment they arrived, the girls were giddy, excited, attractive and social. Most were dressed fashionably. Except for one. Her name was Marie and she came to Interlochen to play the violin. Marie had freckles and beautiful caramel colored-skin but her hair was cut shorter than my brother Peter’s hair. To my surprise, the other girls were unfazed by my physical difference and turned their attention, instead, to Marie and her boots and army fatigues. As I lined up everyone to get fitted for the Interlochen uniform of knickers and light blue shirts, I realized, gratefully, that in this uniform Marie’s style would not set her apart from the rest.
As the summer progressed, I noted that the uniform didn’t really solve the issue. Marie was different and I watched as she struggled, not so much to fit in, but just to be herself among girls with whom she had nothing in common (save the arts). Late one night when all the girls were asleep, she approached me and tapped on my shoulder. At first I was drowsy, but then became startled. “Marie! Is everything okay? “Shhhhh. Yea…well sort of. I have something to tell you.” She paused as I rubbed by eyes. “Er…I think I’m gay and I’m scared to tell anyone. I haven’t even told my mom yet.” Grateful it was so dark she couldn’t see the look of surprise on my face, I simply reached out to hug her tightly as she cried. Admittedly, her news was a shock to me. Although I had known one boy who had come out privately to me and a couple of other close friends who lived in our dorm during my Freshman year at Wisconsin, I never met a girl with the same news. Marie began to describe how she planned to tell her sister when camp was over.
I could only see a shadow of Marie’s face but could practically feel her gaze as she continued. “Because I don’t like boys I don’t think I’ll ever be able to marry either.” I sat up, put my one-fingered, shortened arm around her and said softly, “Everything will be okay.” I then shared something extremely personal. “I’m worried about whether I’ll ever marry too…because of my hands.” In that moment, I knew I needed to give her and perhaps both of us hope. “You know what? I almost didn’t come to be a counselor since I worried what all of you guys would think of me.” At that moment, Marie burst aloud, “What?!” “I know it sounds ridiculous to you now, but I needed to figure out a way to not worry how others might judge me for being, well….me.” I turned to her, now able to see pretty clearly, even in the dark. “It’ll be up to you to find the strength to accept yourself for who you are, not who you like or what others are thinking of you.”
This past Friday I had the privilege of being invited by Louis Bordman, the Director of Eisner Camp, a Jewish camp in the Berkshires, to speak and train the staff before the campers arrived the following week. Admittedly, I initially was hesitant, since the excursion would require my husband John and me to drive three hours there and back in one evening, leaving our three children, Ethan, Charlie and Savanna home with a sitter. But, given all three were about to spend a month at Eisner, I figured the invitation was a welcome opportunity.
During the week, as I began to brainstorm what I might speak about, I attended a marketing event in Manhattan for people running charities. Don’t Hide It Flaunt It had just been granted 501(c)(3) status and I happily accepted the invitation to join the session and learn more. The teacher mentioned something that resonated. He discussed the concept of “The Hero’s Journey.” That every successful story and movie share some themes in common and that we should leverage that on our own path to success: (i) an unlikely hero; (ii) a mentor; (iii) a call to adventure; (iv) an acceptance by the unlikely hero of the journey; (v) a final test; (vi) success; (vii) the hero’s use of what he or she has learned to repair the broken world.
His examples I would use during my own presentation at Eisner. There was the hero/mentor team in Star Wars of Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi. And in the Wizard of Oz with Dorothy and Glinda the Good Witch. The teacher also pointed to extremely successful ad campaigns that motivated people to act, such as Nike’s, “Just Do It.” I left the session feeling inspired to write for my speech at Eisner.
And then, the day I was to deliver my speech, something happened that felt miraculous. The Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality, making same-sex marriage a right. My mind leapt back to Marie from Interlochen. Where was she when she heard the news? I added the Court’s ruling to my notes and we hit the road. When we finally arrived at Eisner and Louis came to greet us, he reminded me of the camp’s slogan, “Be the One”. He explained that “Be the One” was meant to encourage his counselors and campers to lead by example. When someone appears lost, dejected, rejected or out of place, who will be the one to step forward to provide support, direction and friendship? If you go to Eisner, you will be encouraged to be that one throughout your life. Louis told me how excited he was and appreciative of my being there to spread this message, in my own terms.
When it was my turn to speak, I recalled a past blog I had written about when I was a camper at another Jewish Reform Camp, Olin Sang Ruby in Wisconsin, and what it was like to show up at a camp looking different like me. I then challenged the staff to think about how they’d each react to a camper who confided that they felt badly about their own lot in life due to a visible or invisible difference? I told them about “The Hero’s Journey,” and reminded them that they are the mentors and their camper is the unlikely hero. They are there to offer strength and inspiration. They are there to explain that the camper has the power to not worry about what others think about them. It is up to each camper to either give in or accept the challenge of believing in themselves. I encouraged the staff to share with a troubled camper a personal story of feeling different or judged and how they themselves overcame it. I acknowledged that while other kids might continue to give that camper a hard time, this would be the unlikely hero’s test. They would pass the test when the find the confidence to disregard the critics. In the most favorable result, their positive attitude would be infectious among their peers.
The next day, back at home packing the kids up for the long drive up to camp when we go together, I am still absorbing the Supreme Court decision. One of the points that stands out to me most is that campaigns like Nike’s “Just Do It” presuppose that each of us has the liberty and freedom to be true to oneself, to own our power and act on it. Yet when Marie was confiding in me that night back at camp, our shared fear was unequal. While my fear of not getting married was self-imposed, hers was rooted in reality and law.
And today that has changed. More and more, we all have the freedom to “Be the One.” It gives me confidence that my kids, others at Eisner, and many more will be the ones continuing to work together to repair the broken world.