When I was ten, I went to singing camp. As much as that may surprise some, it’s true. My elementary school music teacher recommended that my parents send me to the Columbus Boys’ Choir camp in Princeton, New Jersey.
Back in the day, the Columbus Boys’ Choir was a prestigious boarding school for musically inclined children. A Julliard-type affair for fourth through eighth graders, their touring choir performed all around the world, including venues like the Boston, New York, and Berlin Philharmonics. Unbeknownst to me, the camp was how one auditioned for the school.
And so, one morning in the heat of the New York summer, I was packed away and driven to Princeton. The school was what you might imagine, a stately brick structure with practice rooms and performance halls. The camp was held on the grounds outside where the eighty or so campers were housed in cabins.
My cabin was the last one of ten on the right. It was a small structure made to house eight bunk beds and a cot for a counselor. Its front wall was made mostly of screen, so we had the feeling we were always outside. My dad walked me inside to get me settled and stowed my trunk at the foot of my bed. To that point in my life, I had never been away from home and I was more than a little scared. He kissed me on the head and asked if I was all right. I nodded and watched him walk away. I suddenly felt very much alone.
I cried for half the first night as did the boy in the bunk next to me. In the morning we sheepishly introduced ourselves. His name was Ben. A full head shorter than me, he was a soft-spoken, gentle kid. We decided we should be friends.
We were a bit of an odd couple. I was – even then – a bit of a jock while Ben was not. But we liked each other and had no one else, so for the next few weeks we were pals.
Most of our days were spent rehearsing, usually for up to six hours a day. We did other campy things of course, horseback riding, archery, shuffleboard and the like. But it was mostly singing or, for those who played instruments, practicing their craft. I learned a lot about controlling my voice, harmonizing, and integrating it with others.
When we weren’t practicing, Ben and I would kick around the camp for the other organized activities. I always excelled at these, outperforming Ben at every turn. He didn’t seem to care about that, he just liked hanging out. As for me, it made me feel very good to be the best at everything.
One day we were playing shuffleboard. Looking up at the triangle at the other end of the board, I realized I was losing. Counting up the score, I figured out that if I didn’t snag a ten with one of my last two pucks I would lose. I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t lose. Especially not to Ben.
“Wait a minute,” I said, frowning. “I need to check something out.” We walked down to the other end of the shuffleboard court. Without Ben seeing it, I dragged one of my pucks with me to the other end and placed it on the ten. Satisfied that it would suffice, I led Ben back; we shuffled our last shots, and low and behold, I won. My spotless record still intact, I walked over to the camp counselor to report our scores.
“I won,” I preened.
“No, you didn’t; Ben won.” The counselor looked me squarely in the eye. “Now are you going to tell him, or should I?”
In that moment, the bottom fell out of my world. Everything I thought about myself fell apart. You see, in addition to being very proud of my ten-year-old athletic status, I always had thought of myself as being a “good guy.” So not only did I lose the match; I lost who I was. I had cheated. And, worse, I had cheated the only friend I had.
I bowed my head, feeling the heat rise to my cheeks. “I’ll do it.” I walked away, shame wracking my ten-year-old body.
“What does he mean, Joe?” Ben asked, following me. “What’s going on?”
I knew what the words were, I just couldn’t bring myself to say them.
“What is it?” I could hear the panic in Ben’s voice. He didn’t know why I was acting so strangely.
“I cheated.” I couldn’t even look at him. “I dragged one of my pucks and placed it on the ten.”
Ben’s face reddened while he thought about this. Eventually, he said, “It’s okay.”
But, it wasn’t. Although we remained friends, it was different. I was different. It took me several days to look him in the eye. I had lost my self-assurance. I was no longer the boy I had thought I was. And I knew I wasn’t worthy of our friendship.
When we got to the end of camp, our parents arrived to pick us up. The school treated them to a performance showcasing the many talents we had honed at camp. The choir performed a number of intricate songs designed for choirs and I have to admit, we were pitch perfect.
When we had finished, however, the instructor announced a “special treat.” He introduced “young Ben Pasternack” and to my surprise, my buddy Ben walked to the stage and sat down at a piano that dwarfed his frame.
He raised his small hands for a short pregnant pause and then he hammered them down on the keys like lightning. It was like watching Mozart as a child. His fingers flew up and down the keyboard, incredibly sure of every note. He didn’t have a score in front of him, he just played and played and played. Everyone there was astounded. I’ve never seen anything like it, even to this day. He was amazing.
Thinking back on it, I suppose that Ben didn’t need to win at shuffleboard. He was already the best at the one thing he cared about. I, on the other hand, wasn’t really that good at anything. Not even shuffleboard. And certainly not at being a good guy, much less a friend.
I wish I could say that after that moment I never again fell short of my expectations. I have failed myself and others many times. And the good person I’ve tried to be always seems to be a work in progress. But hopefully, in the end, my reach won’t exceed my grasp.
As for Ben, I never saw him again. But if I could, I’d like to tell I’m sorry and thank him for being such a good friend when we were ten. He was a really good guy.