I wonder how many other people feel about themselves as I did then, back in 1981 when I was 14 years old. I remember well my overall attitude towards everything: Poor me. I was convinced that everyone was against me and equally certain that no one had ever suffered the way I did. Poor poor me. I changed my attitude, however, after going to summer camp with other people who had it much worse than I did.
My parents made me go, completely against my will, to MDA Summer Camp in 1981. I had resolved myself that I was going to spend the entire summer holed up in my room, reading comic books and trying to shut out everything and everyone else as much as I possibly could. I could hardly believe my ears when dad came to tell me he had signed me up for MDA Camp. MDA: Muscular Dystrophy Association. I had been cursed with a neuromuscular disease that made me walk bow-legged and forced me to wear leg braces. I could no longer run and play: everything important to me had been taken away through no fault of my own. The onset of the disease did not hit until my thirteenth year, but there I was – 16 months after being diagnosed – being told I was being thrust among a bunch of cripples for an entire week. I begged and pleaded to just be left alone, but they made me go. I hated them for this.
I was resolved to make everyone else at camp as miserable as I was. I ran away from my counselor and refused to participate in any of the activities; everywhere I went I took a book and just read, not talking to anyone else. The truth, however, was that I could not bear to look around me. Almost every camper there was confined to a wheelchair. Many could not use their legs at all, and some could not use their arms either. A few could not even support the weight of their heads on their necks. It was heart-breaking. The counselors helped the campers with everything, from dressing them in the morning to feeding them at mealtime to cleaning them after they went to the bathroom. Yes, even that indignity. I did not want to be a camper, did not want to be a cripple, did not want to be associated with people who were barely capable of maintaining their life functions. I wanted to be a counselor.
But I could not be a counselor, not with muscular dystrophy. I was stuck as an observer of what I did not wish to see, and through it all I found a different me. Obviously, there were others who had it much worse than I did, and those who had it worse were much brighter people than I could ever have hoped to be. Their smiles and their joy shone through them, regardless of their crippled bodies. On the night before camp ended, I spent most of the night in tears: not because I was sad, but because I was ashamed of my overall attitude. How dare I behave as if suffering had been invented just for me? Yes, I had muscular dystrophy, and yes, I could not run and play as most of my classmates back home could; but what truly handicapped me was my attitude, and I resolved to change it. I had been given a challenge, and maybe that was unfair, but I knew then that I could never be beaten by anything as trivial as a physical infirmity.
Going to camp that year made me see the world in a different light, and I changed my life as a result of that experience. Today, at nearly 350 pounds and suffering worse than ever from the deterioration of my leg and arm muscles, I still have not given up. My disease has progressed to affect my hands and has eaten away even more at my leg muscles, but I still have not given up. I never will: until the day I am physically unable to function, I will continue to rise and do what must be done to survive. I still walk, and I still work, and I still strive to make the world a happier place. And as a teacher, when students comes to me with their Poor Me attitudes, complaining about how hard their lives are, I cannot help but remember that week at MDA Camp and believe that the answer to their woes lies not in the world around them, but in the world within.