After a stressful year of teaching English in China, I needed a break. Not only was I grinding my teeth at night, but I had started unconsciously yanking out my eyebrow hair in a stress-based fugue state. It was not a good time for me, so I decided to declutter my life and spend a summer working at a camp outside Saint Petersburg.
The camp was located in a forest, next to a lake, a couple hours away from the city. It was a government-run property, but I was working for a private language school teaching drama to a bunch of six- to seventeen-year-olds. Was it a stress-free experience? Hardly.
During week-long sessions, I had to work with students of various English levels as we wrote, choreographed, and practiced original plays for their parents. My job was to help the students do as much as possible, building each piece (props, costumes, script) from scratch. Throughout my time at the camp, I directed performances of everything from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
One of my most interesting performances was a seven-year-old version of Super Mario Brothers. The props were easy enough, but our two brothers kept getting into fights and the boy who played Pacman knew virtually no English. We went through three princesses, because the girls kept getting sick, and King Koopa refused to perform unless he got his own death scene.
In short, it was a cluster of a thousand little emergencies, and my peaceful retreat in the forest was turning into another excuse for me to pull out my eyebrow hair. Of course, I got to spend a lot of time with the other teachers and counselors, and we explored the forest as much as we could, but all of my free time was overshadowed by the frantic drama duties.
Once the weather warmed enough, the other counselors took me to the lake for some night swimming. Because of the warming patterns of the sun, daytime swimming was too cold, but at night, the water’s surface was just the right temperature for an hour’s worth of swimming. At this time, the stars were out, many of them shooting across the sky in flashes, and the lake’s lily pads had opened up to reveal small, white flowers. After nearly ten hours of kid-wrangling madness, I finally felt relaxed.
Over the months, my job certainly didn’t get any easier. If anything, the duties started to spin out of control. One student threw a coffee cup at another’s head, and we had to remake her costume to accommodate the puffy bandage across her scalp. There was a flu outbreak, and I had to do some last-minute rewrites for my Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, and Pinky & the Brain groups. I woke up every morning with a new list of tiny fires that I had to extinguish.
And yet, my stress levels were lower than they’d ever been. I wasn’t freaking out. I wasn’t pulling out my eyebrow hair. I didn’t even grind my teeth at night. And I think that was because of the night swimming. No matter how crazy things got during the day, I knew that as soon as the sun went down, I’d dive into the flower-studded lake and let the warm water wash over me. Swimming was turning into my therapy, and it helped me put everything else in focus.
More than that, the night swimming helped me appreciate the craziness. Before, I thought that the last-minute rewrites and constant child drama were things for me to suffer through. Now, I knew that they were parts of the fun. I was here for a wild experience, and I was getting it.
On the last day of the camp, all the St. Petersburg parents came for our big show. How did my Mario Brothers do? Well, the performance started out well, but then Luigi forgot half his lines and Mario started dancing for no reason. It was a mess, basically, but the parents loved it. And I did, too.
I knew that this was an experience I’d remember, and I needed to appreciate everything—the good and the bad, the calm and the crazy—because it was all part of the same Russian summer.
Evan Purcell is a romance novelist currently living in Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom famous for being the happiest country in the world. You can read more about his travel experiences (and spicy romance books) at http://www.EvanPurcell.Blogspot.com.
1. Wolf Cubs
CAPTION: One of my younger students poses with our pack of werewolf cubs. This was from our recreation of Hotel Transylvania.
CAPTION: Counselors and students worked hard on this foam recreation of the Titanic for a performance based on the Oscar-winning movie (now with a happy ending).
CAPTION: After a long day of camp craziness, I went straight to the lake.