"That's why it's called, that's why it's called, a Riggabamboo, a Riggabamboo!" We finish our usual "repeat-after-me" song as we head back for dinner after a three-hour hike. The 10-year-olds quickly suggest another song, and their counselor and I happily start it up; singing allows them to forget that they are cold and hungry long enough to get back to Hayden Lodge.
As I begin with "The alligator is my friend," I think back to a year ago, when I was finishing my senior-honors thesis at Colby College and living in Maine. Now here I am in the woods in New Jersey, singing about an alligator throwing rocks. And my reading these days - to a bunk-filled room - mostly consists of "Charlotte's Web." What have I gotten myself into?
As the coordinator of Paterson's Environmental and Cultural Enrichment (PEACE) program, I know that, although these fifth-graders are tired now, after dinner and arts and crafts they'll be excited to have a campfire and make s'mores. Since every fifth-grader in the Paterson, N.J., school system is invited to Camp Vacamas to learn about the environment, international cultures, and team building, the students' three-day visit is jampacked with activities. My job is to make sure it all runs smoothly, and to supervise and support the crew of counselors.
Because it's 5 p.m. on Thursday, because the students stayed up talking and giggling until 2 a.m. the night before, and because rest hour never seems long enough, we all are exhausted. And yet, despite my fatigue, I can't help but laugh when I think about what I would've said if someone had approached me a year ago, as I was writing a seminar paper on Virginia Woolf, to tell me that I'd eagerly be awaiting 9:30 p.m. so I could go to sleep.
But I don't envy my cosmopolitan classmates who, right about now, are gearing up for Thursday night on the town while I change out of my dirty jeans and curl up in my sleeping bag. If I'm ever jealous of their lifestyle, I focus on the perks of living on a 560-acre camp and working with kids.
If I pine for my college friends' access to culture, I think about the dramas I see every day as homesick students sob for their parents; Medea would be nothing compared to these tragedies. I recall the stories I hear from the students who have never been hiking - such as Amberly, who recalls:
"We were hiking up that big hill to go see caves and I kept sliding all around because of the leaves when I met this big rock and I said, 'Rock, you aren't going to get me!' And then the rock said, 'Oh yeah, Amberly? That's what you think. I'm gonna get you!' And I said, 'Uhnuh, Rock, no you're....' But before I could say 'not' it did get me and I slipped right on it!"
If I imagine my friends' apartments, far from the terrible potholes on our dirt road, I think about how I can camp out every night simply by walking into the woods. I remember how close I am to deer, bears, rabbits, owls, and raccoons, and how I can see constellations more clearly than under the city lights.
Sure, I'm eating grilled cheese sandwiches instead of broiled salmon and couscous, and handing out Oreos, raingear, and Band-Aids in northern New Jersey instead of networking with colleagues in Paris. As we walk back across the edge of the lake, I take a deep breath and think, "This isn't such a bad first job." Then I begin another repeat-after-me song.
• Katherine Dunn graduated last year from Colby College in Waterville, Maine.