Air of Youth

Dylan ZhangMarch 4, 2024Crisis & ChangeAwesome Moments

Artwork by Anna Chasnyk, Age 14

The beauty and sadness of change were hanging in the atmosphere of the University of San Diego as the rising sun foretold the goodbyes to come.

I could breathe them everywhere on the campus, just like the dry and wet air from the desert and sea I had breathed in the past three weeks since I came to the summer camp.

The camp, hosted by Areteem Institute, was focused on the topic of mathematics, and it was one which I dreaded, since I held on to the belief that anything educational would be boring and stiff for the summer holidays. In the months leading up to the opening day of camp, I whined and complained, thinking over and over in my head that it would be the worst three weeks of my life. However, in just the three-week period that I spent there, I got to know the 20 or so campers that came from across the states and from countries around the world. There were middle schoolers, high schoolers from freshmen to seniors, and even some elementary school kids. I fell into an ambiguous category, as I had just finished eighth grade and was on my way to my freshman year of high school. This wide distinction amongst the campers there, along with varying personalities, made my time there magical, offering different combinations not only of mathematical numbers but also of thinking and shouting, frustration and excitement, and darkness and light.

However, all magic, no matter how special, must come to an end. Three weeks turned to two, which turned to one, and then the dawn of the last day was quickly upon us. My flight had been delayed, forcing me to be the last person to leave. As I stayed in the common area, saying my goodbyes and seeing campers off, I soon found myself watching the once bustling and noisy dormitory turn into a silent, empty space. I walked through the dorm rooms, hoping to see some resemblance of our time together, but all I saw were bare beds and empty closets, as if the whole camp experience was just a dream. No noise or laughter permeated the rooms, except for the occasional chirping of birds that broke the silence. This realization that I was alone sent me on one last stroll throughout the campus, revisiting places where we ate, where we played, where we studied, where we gathered, to try to relive those moments which were already disappearing fast, like a mirage disseminating into the wind.

As I wandered around restaurants, classrooms, and auditoriums while climbing stairs and trekking on bike paths, I found myself filled with emotions. Despite having only spent three weeks at camp, I was full of nostalgia as I looked upon these now empty places, remembering how my fellow campers and I once laughed and cheered. I headed toward the dining hall where we had most of our meals, and perched by myself on a table, looking around at the other groups of different summer camps that also took place on the campus. I was filled with a longing sadness and melancholy, yet I found myself struck by the strange beauty of being alone while watching the world revolving and changing around me.

I returned to my dorm room for the final time, to collect my luggage and make sure I hadn’t left anything behind. The stillness of the air was so strange, yet so calming at the same time, tinged with the bittersweet feeling of moving on. Looking around for the last time, the dormitory area was spotless, cleaned and tidied up by the staff, with no hint whatsoever that my fellow campers and I had once lived here and called this space our home.

As I got into the Uber and glanced back, the realization that this wasn’t just the end of my summer camp, but of the end of my preteen youth, hit me. The laughter with my bunkmates was forever gone, and so were those days of playing all day, without any care in the world, with my fellow students. From now on, I would need to take studies and extracurriculars seriously, worrying about my GPA and even the college application coming in three years. I told myself, if I wanted to succeed, I would have to embrace a mindset of diligent study and grueling training. But at this very moment, the thought of never seeing the people with whom I had bonded so closely and the feeling that one chapter of my life had closed permanently overwhelmed me nevertheless. Change is always happening — but by the time I realized it, it was already too late to stop it. The process of embracing this fundamental aspect of life, no matter how bitter or sweet it may be, was embedded within me on this very departure day. Some of the most impactful and memorable events in our lives are also the most fleeting ones. There always comes the time when change is unstoppable, a time when one must let go and embrace the transition, a time when one must look towards the future. Dreading it won’t do any good. At the same time, the importance of cherishing the moments I had with friends will forever remain on my mind.

Walking to the airport and getting on the plane, my mind was clear and my conscience free, leaving only the bittersweet memories of my experience at Areteem summer camp. As I watched the world fly by, a faint excitement filled my heart as I considered the start of a new phase of my life. With the lessons I learned, I wondered where I would go, who I would meet, and what I would do. Yet the challenge of the new and unknown emboldened me all the more to move on. Then, I headed home toward North Carolina.