Be the Drop that Makes the Splash
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Not a lot of pictures in this one because at the time, it was a shameful memory I wanted to forget. Now that I’m older, I can appreciate this experience and I hope that you might read it and find your voice too.
In high school, I was selected to attend an all-paid trip to a leadership camp in Julian, hosted and funded by the Rotary Club. I don’t know why I was selected, I didn’t apply for it nor had I ever heard of this camp. I knew very little about Rotary, but I’m grateful a counselor recommended me because it became one of the most defining right of passages in my life.
I was never a shy kid, my progress reports usually said something like “a great student but talks a lot in class”. And my mom was once called in for a parent/teacher conference because I submitted a new seating chart to my 5th grade teacher that I thought was more efficient than hers. She told my Mom that it was better. But of course she couldn’t use it because, as the teacher, she needed to maintain her authority.
It wasn’t my intention to threaten her authority. In fact the very thought of that embarrassed me! By most standards, I was raised in a strict household where respect in God and our parents and adults was required. I had a bedtime until I left for college at 17 and a curfew until I fully moved out of the house at 22. We didn't negotiate with our parents and talking back was an immediate deal breaker. It’s not a complaint, I like what that structure taught me. But I can’t ignore that it’s also likely the reason I found myself at 16 with little to no ability to question authority.
Can you remember the first time you looked around the room and realized that your “leaders” might not deserve your respect? Because I do.
The 2.5 day Rotary camp started with what I thought at the time were lame icebreakers. Silly games to meet people. The camp leaders were seniors in high school and they had bullhorns and the energy of cheerleaders on speed. Constantly hammering in the camp’s cheesy theme of “Be the Drop the Makes the Splash”.
We learned about what leaders look like. How they talk, how they stand. Body language and projecting your voice. We played uncomfortable games like who could stare into the eyes of a stranger 6 inches in front of you the longest without laughing or looking away. They were teaching us to be comfortable in uncomfortable settings. We had to talk nonstop for FIVE minutes while someone else pretended not to care so we’d never feel shy speaking to a disinterested audience.
I wouldn’t describe this trip as fun. By design, I was constantly outside of my comfort zone and I didn’t have anyone to decompress to. I distinctly remember wanting to go home, but we were constantly reminded that a leader never gives up.
On the last night, just before dinner, the entire camp was ushered into a gym with cement floors and metal folding chairs set up in circular rows facing the center. The leaders looked angry and demanded we hurry to a seat. I sat about six rows back and could barely see the large fish tank on a table in the center.
I was hungry, and I kept thinking about getting through this last night so I could go home in the morning.
And then the verbal beating started.
The leaders took turns yelling at us into their bullhorns.
Apparently, we had been leaving our trash all over the camp. We weren’t respectful of the process. We weren’t grateful to camp services. The camp owner said we’re the worst group that had ever stayed there and they threatened to cancel all future Rotary Club related camps.
While they yelled, one leader dragged a garden hose into the room and began filling up the fish tank.
They told us they were embarrassed of us, and we wouldn’t be getting dinner. Someone gasped, and the leader looked directly at them and all but spit in their face.
We were told to sit still for an hour and then they’d release us to our rooms for the night. If anyone left, their parents would be called to get them immediately and we'd have to refund the Rotary Club for all camp costs.
No one moved. My heart was pounding. Nothing felt right. I hadn’t done any of the things they were claiming, nor had I noticed any litter or disrespect. Maybe others had, but why should I be punished for that? The situation was growing more tense by the second; I was scared to be there.
And then water started pouring over the top of the fish tank.
Someone pointed it out, but was immediately cut off with a loud “SHUT UP!”
A minute later, water reached the first row. Someone shifted their feet and a leader yelled “I SAID DON’T MOVE!”
Another minute passed and a girl bent down to lift her purse off the floor, and the leader walked into her row, stomping through water, and yelled in her face, “I DON’T CARE IF YOUR THINGS GET WET!” And threatened to call her parents.
At that point, a boy a few chairs down stood up and said “man, you can’t talk to her like that.” And the leader shot back “STAY OUT OF IT AND SIT DOWN!”
Then someone else stood up and started walking to the door saying “this is ridiculous.” A leader ran to cut him off in the row. He wouldn’t let him pass as he screamed into his face. His veins were ripping out his neck and I thought someone might take a swing. My heart was beating so fast. Now I knew for certain this wasn't right.
I was sweating in my seat.
Then someone on the other side of the room stood up and said “call my parents, they’d love to pay so I can leave this place!” “SIT BACK DOWN!” And then another stood up. And another, and another. And then a guy three seats down from me started waving his hands to lift us out of our seats “come on guys! Stand up! BE THE DROP THAT MAKES THE SPLASH!!”
Yes. He literally said that. I will never forget. Because even then I looked up at him and thought, I’m not sure I should. I think my parents would understand if they had to come, but is it worth the inconvenience? Can’t we just do what they say and get through this night? It’s one more night. We can send in complaints tomorrow. Let’s avoid a fight. Don’t get so hung up by the theme of this week.
And then, when nearly the whole room was standing, as quick as it started, it ended. The leaders dropped their act and started clapping.
They turned the water off and praised us for our reaction. It was all an experiment meant to put us in an unfair situation so we could rise up into leaders. They publicly apologized to everyone they’d personally yelled at. Guys started hugging. They shared their own experience from the year before, about the internal struggle, but choosing to do what was right. We passed the test. And we‘d be rewarded with pizza for dinner. PIZZA!
But I wasn’t laughing with everyone else.
I wanted to cry. I looked around the room, and even then, I was still sitting.
Days after I left camp, I still felt heavy about that night. I buried the memory away because it was too shameful to recall. I didn't feel brave, I didn't feel like a leader. I failed.
I questioned what amount of misconduct I would allow before I finally spoke up for myself and those around me. Would I watch someone get abused? Would I make excuses for the abuser? Would I go against my instincts and trust someone solely because of their title?
A few years later, when I was more independent in college and constantly witnessing questionable behavior from professors, drunk men, and mean girls, I remembered this exercise. I realized it wasn't a moment that defined my weakness, just a moment that called it out. I‘d seen first hand what real leaders looked like, and it was time to use my own voice to be one. To stand up for what’s right when you feel it in your heart. To call out wrong when you see it. To encourage strength in the people around you that feel it too. We have to be brave. We have to stand up for justice and for light. Because maybe the person sitting next to you is just waiting for that drop that’ll make the splash.
And who knows, you might even trigger a wave.
Further reading: I found this link online from Business Wire that details this Rotary Camp. They conveniently left out the act I described above because we were specifically told not to reveal that to any possible future attendees. I don’t know if this camp is still meeting and can’t imagine they’re still berating students like that in today’s political climate, but as the article claims, it most certainly was a “life-changing experience” for me.