Two years ago I was working as a dishwasher at a girls' summer camp. It was for inner-city kids, most of them young black girls, skinny and tough. I was the only boy at the camp. My mother was the cook, and we shared a small cabin on the edge of the camp.
Rules were that I was to stay away from the girls and they were to stay away from me. Of course, it never happened that way. The girls were always up to one prank or another. They liked to string my underwear up the flagpole and things like that.
Although my job was to wash dishes, I ended up helping with other chores too. For example, I had to carry mattresses that had been wet during the night down to the tennis court, where they could dry out.
It was a rather uneventful summer until Amy arrived. Amy isn't her real name. I'm keeping that a secret because she's entitled to a life of her own. Amy was about seven years old. Her hair was done in tiny braids, each with a colorful bead on the end. But the thing that was most noticeable about her was that she didn't speak to anyone.
My mom explained to me that Amy had been locked in the closet for months when she was five years old. Her mother had put her there because she had to work during the day and didn't want Amy to hurt herself by falling down the stairs or being hit by a car. When a neighbor discovered Amy's situation, she reported it. Amy was taken away from her mother and put into a foster home. Since then, Amy hadn't spoken at all.
After hearing the story, I couldn't sleep. I thought about how awful it was to be so poor and how much Amy had suffered.
I started to keep an eye on her during the day. It was true: She wouldn't speak to anyone. She wet the bed every night so I had to go to her cabin in the morning and carry her mattress down to the tennis court. I would have carried that mattress all the way to California for her.
Sometimes she followed me down to the tennis court. "Amy," I would ask her, "what's your secret?"
She would just smile back. A really cute little smile that just about broke my heart. Then I started to notice something else about Amy. After lunch most of the kids got letters from their mothers or fathers. No letters came for Amy. All the same, she kept looking at the person who was calling out the names and handing out the mail as though she expected her name to be called any minute.
At night I used to sit on a bench at the beach, just to think and look out over the lake. As I approached the benches one night, I saw Amy sitting there, her feet swinging back and forth.
"Hey, Amy," I said, sitting next to her. "You should be in bed."
She didn't answer me. She looked up and smiled.
"Amy, what's your secret?" I asked as I looked out over the water.
She didn't answer.
She didn't say anything, but out of the corner of my eye I could see she was looking across the lake.
"I like looking at that light. For me it's like my dream. Do you understand what I mean?"
She still didn't answer.
"And I don't even know what my dream is yet," I said. "Right now it's something like a light that shines inside of me and makes me feel that one day I'm going to do something important with my life."
She leaned her head against my arm.
"Or maybe this is my dream right here at camp--to be washing dishes and carrying mattresses down to the tennis court, and sitting here with a little girl who has braids and beads all over her head."
I don't know if she was listening to me. It was hard to tell because she didn't speak. When I went back to my cabin, I just couldn't get Amy out of my mind. I started thinking about how she'd be waiting full of hope for mail the next day after lunch. So I drew a picture of the lake with a big light shining on the other side of it. I folded it up, put it in an envelope, and wrote her name on it. Then I went over to the dining hall and put the letter in the mail pile.
The next day when the mail was handed out, I watched Amy sitting there all hopeful. When her name was called, she went up to get that letter like a pro. Then she sat down, opened it, and looked at the picture. She didn't stop looking even when everyone else was leaving the dining hall. So I went over and asked, "Hey, Amy, what's your secret?"
She didn't answer. She looked at the picture, then looked at me, then put the picture over her heart.
It just about broke me up because I knew that's all I could do for Amy. I was just a kid. If I had money I'd try to send her to school or maybe go to court and get her mom back and give them both the money they needed for a decent life. Really, though, there was nothing I could do but give her a picture of a light across a lake to remind her of a dream.
On the last day of camp, she gave me a big hug good-bye, which for me was worth a million words. It told me I had touched her heart and she wouldn't forget our secret. Maybe she had a dream of her own. I hope so. Though it might not seem like much, getting to know Amy that summer was the most moving experience I've ever had. She taught me what dreams are made of.