I knew what the place was going to be like as soon as I saw the sign on the way in to camp.
CAMP RITUHBUKKEE: MOLDING YOUNG MINDS SINCE 1933
I'm sorry, but I don't want my mind to be molded. Mold is gross. It reminds me of that green stuff that grows on bread. I hate mold.
I'd prefer my mind deep fried, sprinkled with powdered sugar, and then covered in chocolate sauce.
* * *
On the surface, Camp Rituhbukkee looked like pretty much any other nice summer camp. It had a big lake for swimming, a basketball court, a tennis court, and baseball and soccer fields. The campers lived in cool log cabins in the woods, and the dining room was huge, with big wooden tables and chairs everywhere. There was a room for arts and crafts and stuff like that, and a theater where you put on shows.
It was actually a really nice place, if you were able to forget about what you were there to do.
Which was read and write.
Even though Katie and Nareem were at camp with me, I couldn't stop thinking about everybody else back home. Mostly I thought about the awesome and amazing Zoe Alvarez, my almost-girlfriend. She was the only girl who could ever compare to the awesome and amazing Hannah Spivero. I missed Zoe already, and I'd only been gone five hours. I also thought about the rest of the gang--Jake, Timmy, Pete, and yeah, Hannah. I pictured them at the beach, having a great time doing nothing; or at the movies, eating French fries and talking about what a loser I was. Which is exactly what I would have been doing if I were them.
Sadly, though, I wasn't them. I was me.
And so, instead of having a great time doing nothing, I found myself standing with all the other campers, in a giant circle around a flagpole. Because it was the first day, we had to do what was called the "Welcome Ring." Meaning, we all held hands and sang the camp song, which was called "Learning To Love, and Loving To Learn."
That's pretty much all you need to know about that song.
I stared at Katie and Nareem, who were singing at the top of their lungs. "Are you guys serious?"
Katie giggled. "Charlie Joe, you're at camp now," she said, while somehow managing to not miss a note. "Stop being such a Negative Norman and get with the program."
"But I'm not with the program," I explained. "I'm very much against the program."
"I still can't believe you decided to attend the camp, Charlie Joe," Nareem said. "You are not someone I normally associate with books and reading and learning."
"Ya think?" Katie added, which made them both giggle all over again.
I rolled my eyes and pretended to sing, until finally the song ended. Then an extremely tall man with extremely short shorts stepped into the center of the circle. All the kids clapped, until he put his hand up to stop them. They stopped immediately.
"Greetings, and welcome to Camp Rituhbukkee!" the tall man announced. "Welcome back, to those many familiar faces I see. And to those newcomers, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Dr. Malcolm Malstrom, but you can call me Dr. Mal. I'm not a medical doctor, though, so if you get sick, don't call me at all." He paused for laughter, and it came in a huge wave. Which was strange, since what he said wasn't actually funny.
"We're all excited for another wonderful season here at Rituhbukkee," Dr. Mal continued. "We've got many new surprises in store to make this our best summer ever."
I looked at Katie as if to say, Seriously?
She looked back at me as if to say, Behave.
Dr. Mal glanced down at his clipboard. "Before we go to our cabins to get settled in before dinner, I wanted to mention one last thing." He smiled like a dad who is about to give the most awesome present ever. "This year, we'll be introducing the Rituhbukkee Reward. This extraordinary honor will go to the one camper who best displays the camp's core values of integrity, community, and scholarship."
Everybody ooh-ed and aahh-ed.
"The winner of the Rituhbukkee Reward," Dr. Mal added, "will be awarded a full scholarship to camp next year, at absolutely no cost, and will be admitted to the counselor training program when he or she reaches the appropriate age."
The oohs and aahhs turned into excited squeals of delight. Even Katie and Nareem were nodding happily.
"Sounds more like a punishment than a reward," I whispered, a little too loudly. The girl on my left looked at me like I'd just eaten a plate of fried slugs.
Katie tried to shush me, but it was too late--it turned out that Dr. Mal had really good hearing.
He walked over to me. "Hello, young man."
I looked up at him. He was really tall. His face was a long ways up. "Hello, sir."
"Call me Dr. Mal," he said, smiling. "What's your name?"
"Charlie Joe Jackson."
"Ah yes," said Dr. Mal, nodding. "Mr. Jackson. You come to us with a bit of a reputation."
"Thanks," I said, even though I was pretty sure it wasn't a compliment.
"I'm glad you're here, even if you consider it a punishment," said Dr. Mal, putting his big hand on my shoulder. "Can you tell us what it is you hope to learn here at Camp Rituhbukkee?"
I said the first thing that popped into my head, which was exactly what I told Timmy and Pete, my friends back home, when they asked me the same thing.
"I hope to learn how to read while napping."
Everyone gasped, then went silent. Nobody moved. I think even the birds stopped chirping.
Katie gave me the classic eye-roll.
But Dr. Mal never stopped smiling. "So you're not a fan of reading."
"Nope," I said proudly. "In fact, I've pretty much never read a book all the way through, except under emergency circumstances beyond my control."
I expected the kids to laugh, like they usually did when I made a joke. Instead, they all just stared at me. Some were even whispering to each other, pointing at me, like who is this guy?
I did notice one kid who looked like he was about to laugh--but he was wearing a Harvard T-shirt, so I immediately ruled him out as a fellow book-hater.
Dr. Mal nodded again. "In that case, do you mind if I ask you why you've joined us here at camp?"
"Good question, Dr. Mal. I guess I did it to make my parents happy. It was a moment of weakness, to be honest with you."
That line would have gotten a laugh back home too, for sure. But not here. It was like I'd entered some kind of permanent Opposite Day, where the dorks were the cool kids, and the cool kids--or at least the funny kids--were the outsiders.
Dr. Mal looked down at his clipboard again, then nodded at a big guy who was standing across the circle. "It seems you'll be in with Dwayne, who's one of our best counselors." Dwayne nodded back without smiling. He was by far the least nerdy-looking guy at the whole place. He looked more like a marine than a counselor.
Dr. Mal headed back to the center of the ring. "You may find, Charlie Joe, that you're more like your fellow campers than you realize," he said. Then he looked me right in the eyes and added, "We'll make you one of us yet."
Make you one of us?
Oh, please. I would never become one of them.
But … I started thinking … maybe I could make them one of me!
I realized it would at least be a way to make the next three weeks bearable. I could help these kids change their ways. I could turn them into normal, non-reading people.
I would save them from a life of dorkdom.
Text copyright © 2013 by Tommy Greenwald
Illustrations copyright © 2013 by J. P. Coovert