In this college-admissions essay, Harvard-bound Caroline Zheng shares how MDA summer camp gave her confidence
"Scientists have been trying to find it for hundreds of years, pouring tons of money into research, and to this day they don't have a theory. The elements found in a human being is all junk that you can buy in any market with a child's allowance. Humans are pretty cheaply made," begins a passage from Hiromu Arakawa's Fullmetal Alchemist series. I learned this fact the hard way in seventh grade science. After introducing us to chemistry with an explosion, my teacher had us take part in a far less exciting activity — determining the monetary value of the chemical elements of our anatomy using a calculator. As I finished calculating mine, I stared at the screen in disbelief. Seven hundred sixty-four dollars and six cents? With that measly number, the harsh reality set in — I was worth less than most sofas.
Three years after that dreadful day (and one chemistry course later), I arrived upstate at sleep-away camp. As I navigated through the sea of moms double-checking medicine bottles and nervous first-time campers, a sense of familiarity settled. Almost everywhere I looked, there were new campers exploring on their wheelchairs. Campers, who were more or less, just like me. A disease called muscular dystrophy had brought us all together for the summer and this time, I felt unusually grateful.
Every day of camp followed a schedule but never seemed predictable. Eleven-year-old Dymon (our most energetic camper) woke us at seven sharp each morning by ringing a cowbell in our ears. During meals, my hands became increasingly gifted at teaching the "Cup Song" from the "Pitch Perfect" soundtrack to all of my counselors. There were laughing sessions at 2 a.m., too much decorating with glitter and exhilarating wheelchair races that would give anyone a run for his money.
One sunny afternoon, the girls and I began naming traits we liked in each other. Upon hearing Maria's remark that she loved my "confidence," I bit back the urge to laugh. In truth, I remained obsessed with the concept of measuring self-worth long after that activity in seventh grade. But instead, I now attributed my self-worth to the number of A's on my report card, speech trophies on my shelf and extracurricular achievements. On their own, these were not harmful things. However, in order to not be defined by my physical disability, I determined to be defined by anything else. And in a never-ending chase of shiny metal or framed pieces of paper, failure was inevitable. Slowly, my confidence had all but vanished.
At that moment, I looked over at Dymon, who had ditched our conversation to twirl about in the field. Dymon was sassy and lovable, not despite her disability or because of it. She simply was. At camp, I felt no need to define myself as "the honors student" or "the person with the walker." (The latter name could have applied to almost every camper.) I was just Caroline. My being could never be identified by a list of labels or accomplishments, but rather by an embodiment of characteristics that younger campers, and many others, admired. When the time for teary goodbyes came all too soon, I left camp with precious memories and a new lens to view myself through. No longer would the sum of my worth be limited by my achievements, as they were only a small part of the equation.
A photo of our dorm from that summer still sits on my desk. Fondly, I smile as I spot several glitter specks from the camp art room that have managed to stick onto the frame through a year of my mom's cleaning spells. Perhaps the scientists missed something in their quest to find a theory, like my mom missed dusting off those specks. For I have discovered that it is not the hydrogen or rubidium within us that make us who we are; it is our inner sparkle that does.