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Girls, Girls

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So this is it.” I sighed as I flopped my suitcase on the bed, which slowly sagged and then collapsed altogether. I had never had the misfortune of venturing into one of these cabins. “Well, I’m here for the duration, whether I like it or not, and I’m just going to have to stick it out,” I resolved.

But as I watched drops of water ooze through the ceiling and give my collapsed bed a measled appearance, I wasn’t so sure. I turned and looked at windows so dirty that drawn shades couldn’t have let in less light. I wanted to sit down in the middle of the cracked and grass-splotched floor and cry.
Summer camp hadn’t started out this way. During the first weeks at Camp Wawona in Yosemite National Park I had taught swimming twice a day for an hour and a half in our Olympic-sized pool, and then had the rest of the day to myself. There was no job I would have preferred to lounging in that beautiful California sun, surrounded by towering redwoods. And when class time rolled around, I enjoyed instructing seven or eight campers on the fundamentals of swimming. Many kids started the week deathly afraid of water, and the challenge was to have them gliding the length of the pool by the end of the week.
I had a few friends who were counselors—“the unfortunates,” I called them. How I pitied them! Stuck with campers from dawn to dawn, 24 hours a day! I liked working with kids, but I cherished my free hours.
Then the blow fell. My idyllic world was shattered when our camp director said, “Vikki, we’re going to have about four more cabins of campers next week than we have counselors. Could you give us a little assistance? Of course, you will still have your job at the pool, but we really do need your help.”
“Oh, Mr. D., I really . . .” I started. But what could I say? They were offering me a scholarship. “Why, sure. I’d be happy to,” I blurted out, and hated myself.

Good question
A week later I moved out of the newly finished, modern staff cabin into a “dump.” I was trying to find a clean spot to store my clothes when in they came: two blonde twins, two sisters, two cousins, a tomboy, and a “beauty queen.”

They fired questions at me like machine guns.

“Vikki, can I keep my frog in the bathtub?”

“Hey, where’s the soap? There’s no soap in here, and if I don’t wash my face, I’m going to get zits.”

“Terry, I chose that bed first! Besides, the ceiling wet on this one.”

“Vikki, I’m scared of the dark. Can I sleep with you?”

“Vikki, what’s for lunch? We’re not going to have to eat that rubber meat stuff, are we?”

“Ooh, Vikki! There’s a bug on my mattress. Is it a bedbug?”

“Who said bedbug? If there are bedbugs in this cabin, I’m going home right now. They bite, and it hurts and makes spots on you, and I’ll be all ruined for Mike’s party.” This from my beauty queen, who would make me vacuum her mattress before she went to bed each night.
They settled in, but never really settled down. Oh, the mornings! I hadn’t realized that a 10-year-old girl can go to bed at midnight every night and get up at 5:00 a.m. My girls would roll out two hours before reveille and make enough noise to wake the counselors two cabins down. After breakfast I’d think I was watching a movie fast-forward as they tried to get the cabin ready for inspection.

When everything was done, I would gather them around me for morning worship. Surprisingly, they always calmed down. In fact, they listened so attentively that as I looked into their innocent, trusting faces, I almost felt that their eternal destiny depended on what I would say that morning. That was more responsibility than I wanted pressing upon my 16-year-old shoulders. How did I ever get myself into this, anyway?
But as the days passed and one of the girls would come to me with a pretty rock she had found or teach me a new word she had learned in sign language, I began to love my campers. Things I had always taken for granted became beautiful as I saw them through the eyes of a 10-year-old.

When one of my blonde twins handed me a tiny blue forget-me-not, smiling and saying, “Jesus must really love us to make all these things for us,” the funniest feeling hit me as I looked into her wide blue eyes and saw my reflection: the lipstick Mother had tried so hard to talk me out of buying, the heavy blue shadow above my eyes that had appeared there only since I left home, and the tiny gold chain around my neck I always tucked under my blouse when Mr. D. or one of the other senior staff came around.

Maybe, as I had tried to rationalize, the makeup and jewelry weren’t such a big deal. But what was it to these little girls? They saw Christ in the flowers; what did they see in me?

It’s inside
In the evenings as I watched them sitting by the campfire, spellbound by mission stories and Bible lessons that had become old hat to me, I had to smile. I remembered how, at their age, the stories had been exciting to me too. Jesus had seemed so real then—like a friend. What had happened? Had I changed? In the warm glow of the campfire I realized I still wanted the childlike faith and love I once had.

And so, many nights after lights-out I stayed on my knees beside my bed, a new experience for me. I had come to the place where the old “Dear Jesus, I love You; forgive me for my sins” each night as I plopped into bed wasn’t enough. If I was going to reach my girls and teach them what I wanted them to learn in one short week, I realized that words were not enough. I would have to do it with my life.

Some days were discouraging. An impatient or unkind word would slip out, and I just knew my campers were going to think I was a tyrant and a terrible counselor—to say nothing of how I had failed to represent God.

Then Sabbath arrived. At Wawona it was the custom to call those who wanted to be baptized to come forward and sign their name in the decision book. Through the entire Sabbath sermon I could think of nothing but how hard God and I had tried. Would my girls be ready to make that kind of commitment? Had I failed in some way?
As the sermon closed and the call began, I held my breath and prayed. We were sitting way in the back, and I knew it was a long, hard walk down that aisle and up to the platform. “Dear God, help at least one of them to make that decision. Please touch their hearts.”

Just then I felt a skirt brush past my knees. My little beauty queen was on her way down the aisle—followed by all seven campers.

I know there are tears of joy, for I cried them that day as I thanked God for a chance to share His love and, in return, learn more about Him myself.
All too quickly the week was over (in the beginning, I had thought it would never end!). As I walked the last camper—Tiffany, my beauty queen—to her car, she turned to me and smiled. “Vikki, you know what I learned most this week?”

“No, Tiffany, what?”
“It’s more important to be pretty inside than to be pretty outside. I’m going to work harder on being pretty inside.”

As she gave me a hug and ran toward the waiting station wagon, I had to smile. Strange, isn’t it, Tiffany, that a camper and her counselor should both learn the same lesson?

This story originally appeared in the June 21, 1983, issue of Insight. At that time Vikki Knoche was a freelance writer from Garden Grove, California.
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