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As a young summer camper, I entertained several illusions. I was convinced that all Capture the Flag games were carefully refereed, that the counselors had no social lives, and that someday, if I tried really hard, I’d win the prestigious Clean Cabin Award. Each day, I’d pick up all my clothes, center my trunk by my bed and sneakers by the door, and sweep up. I envisioned the camp director, a stocky man with a Santa Claus grin, wearing white gloves as he drove around camp to inspect each cabin.
My first year as a counselor, my 10-year-old campers were much less dedicated. Their clothes were piled on the floor. They lost both the job chart that listed who was to mop the floors and scrub the sinks and, while they were at it, the garbage pail.
One chaotic day, the camp director pulled me aside in the cafeteria. I was sure it was about the homesick girl who wailed for her mother daily.
Instead he whispered, “How clean is your cabin?” The image of our filthy home shot into my mind.
“Not very,” I answered. He swore and searched the room for another counselor. Instantly, I realized his motive. “But you can give us the award anyway,” I said.
And so, when he announced that the winner of the clean cabin award was Cabin 46, my girls gasped.
“Wow,” they said. “The other cabins must have been filthy.”
Instead of cleaning our cabin, the girls had been focusing their attention on the compost contest, which awarded t-shirts to the cabin that produced the least food waste during the two-week session. By the second week, we had virtually eliminated waste, weighing in at a single ounce for seven days.
On one of the last days, when we knew that victory was just within our grasp, one camper had a particularly fatty piece of mystery meat. She picked it up and held it over the compost pail, but another girl ordered her to just hold her nose and eat it quickly. When I looked over next, the meat was nowhere to be seen. She smiled proudly and said, “I ate it like an anaconda.”
So we were shocked when the compost contest coordinator announced that the winner was a cabin full of seven-year-old boys.
“I ate an apple pit to win this contest,” Dalen whined plaintively.
Silvi trumped her: “I ate a banana peel.”
When we asked the contest coordinators what had happened, they quietly confessed they had lost the waste chart and just picked the youngest kids.
My girls protested for hours. But because I tend to look for the best in situations and maintain an optimistic outlook, I saw the humorous irony in winning the award we didn’t deserve and being overlooked for the prize we had worked so hard for. This was harder for my campers to understand. After all, life is supposed to be about setting goals and then achieving them. But there are always factors we can’t control, and I tried to make the girls see that setbacks don’t mean imminent failure. They had always known of life’s unfairness, but that day, I hope they started to learn that life also has a way of working itself out.