Another college application essay.
I walked up the dusty dirt road towards the approaching vans, feeling the heat of the ground penetrate through my rubber-soled sandals. The vehicles halted, doors slid open, and teenage girls poured out. I helped grab one girl’s baggage, walked towards the cabins, and introduced myself: “Hi, I’m Joy! What’s your name?” But while my voice was cheerful, my thoughts were uneasy.
Here I was—barely fifteen—working with my church at a summer camp in rural Mississippi. The girls we were serving, some of whom were older than me, were from Jackson’s inner-city. Besides the age differential, the girls could be challenging in other ways: they had a reputation for back-talking, disregarding instructions, stealing, and fighting. They lived in the “projects”, came from broken homes, watched relatives drink to unconsciousness, shared the streets with gangs, saw friends incarcerated, were witness and victim to violence and crime. These facts gave us pause. And besides the “big” issues, I had my own (admittedly petty) concerns: What if they stole our supplies? What if they didn’t pay attention to our lessons? How would I remember all their names? (This turned out to be at least partly legitimate: they had names like JoQuita, Shemp, and LaTamarah—unusual to a Seattle-ite who has friends with names like Joanna, Sally, and Liz.)
The week passed. Our fears, thankfully, were unwarranted: the girls cooperated, participated, and were generally nice to each other (and us). We shared time fishing, cooking meals, swimming, riding horses, and making crafts. My most treasured memories are of the evening discussion times we shared in the dormitories. Here, we provided a framework of questions for the girls to answer, ranging from the trivial (What’s your favorite food?) to the serious (What are you afraid of?). Their responses were revealing. Favorite foods included stereotypically southern fare (sweet tea, pulled pork, anything deep-fried), in contrast to our clearly northern palates (steak, crab, salads)—though everyone agreed that ice cream was a favorite. The girls willingly shared their fears with us. There seemed to be a universal fright of darkness. One girl said she was afraid of knives, because she saw her cousin being stabbed. The girl whose bags I had helped carry on the first day—Ebony—mentioned that she feared men “because they are stronger than girls and can hurt us”; a number of the others agreed. Her statement struck me. These girls spent their lives in fear of tragedy, violence, drugs, while I lived in cozy, naïve oblivion (where the greatest danger was slipping in the shower). I could carry their luggage, but I could not even imagine what sort of emotional baggage they were carrying, much less bear their burden.
Externally, we seemed so different. They were African-American; I was Asian-American. They lived in the “ghettos” and the “projects”; I lived in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. They faced the stresses of gangs, violence, and drugs; my biggest stressor was tomorrow’s math test. But in so many ways, we were similar. We were all teenage girls; we all had hopes, fears, and dreams; we all came to camp with prejudices and preconceived ideas about each other—and in some way, overcame them through friendship. And even if I don’t like fried Twinkies, we all still like ice cream on a blazing summer day.
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