28 April 2014

The Stone Swap

When my daughters were in grade school, they were both Girl Scouts, and I led my younger daughter's troop. As part of the job, I attended monthly leaders' meetings in our town. One spring, all of the leaders decided to plan a big weekend trip to our local Girl Scout camp. All the troops in town would attend together, and we'd learn to make fires, hike, fish, and row boats across the camp's little lake. As the girls were young, we decided not to rough it: we would sleep in cabins and dine together in the camp's dining hall.

One of the fun activities we planned for the girls was something called "Swaps." Swaps are a Girl Scout tradition that usually involves making little pins and then trading them with girls from other troops. The girls collect them as mementos of the friendships they have made through scouting. We didn't think all the girls would have their acts together in time to make pins, so we just encouraged them to bring small things from home - stickers, hair ornaments like barrettes, small toys like jacks or Matchbox cars - and they could trade them in the dining hall before dinner one evening.

I explained the plan to my daughters. Sarah, the older one, liked the idea and immediately started diving through her drawers, looking for things to swap. Becky, the younger one, was unimpressed and told me she wasn't going to participate.

"Are you sure?" I asked. "A lot of the girls are going to do it."

But Becky was certain that she didn't want to trade with the others.

The camping weekend arrived, and I was so busy with the logistics that I nearly forgot about the swaps. When the time came to go to the dining hall for the swapping session, Becky pulled me aside.

"I've changed my mind. I want to do it."

Oh, no. "I think it's too late, honey. You didn't bring anything along to trade!"

"That's okay. I'll think of something." She went outside, behind the dining hall, where the road was paved with stones about the size of peach pits, and she filled the kangaroo pocket of her pink sweatshirt with the stones. "I'll trade these," she announced.

I didn't know what to say. No one was going to want to trade stones for their treasured stickers, gizmos and toys. Becky was going to be disappointed, and I tried to tell her so as gently as possible, but she insisted.

We went ahead to the swapping event, where sixty or so Scouts were milling around, offering up their wares and filling little paper bags with their finds. We leaders stood at the edge of the crowd and supervised, poised to intervene if disagreements erupted. (They didn't. This was a great group of girls.) Sarah came back to me at one point and updated me on her progress, showing me all the pretty things she had gotten. I was happy she was having fun, but I was worried about Becky.

As the session wound to a close, however, Becky bounced up to me and held out a bag of goodies. "Look what I got in exchange for my rocks!"

I peered into her bag. There was an enamel pin, a ball-point pen, a hair ribbon, and a Chinese jump rope. I couldn't believe it. "How did you manage to trade all this stuff for rocks?" I asked.

"It was easy. I just had to convince people that the rocks were from my collection at home. I told them they made great paperweights. I showed them how smooth and beautiful they were. Everyone wanted one."

Clever marketing, I thought. But I had a nagging feeling that perhaps the others saw through her ruse and felt sorry for her, and they gave her gifts out of pity rather than out of a sense of fair exchange. I was a little saddened.

Later that evening, I found myself in line in the ladies' room behind a mother and daughter I did not know. The daughter was showing her mother all the swaps she had collected earlier that night. "Look at this," she said to her mom, holding up a smooth heart-shaped stone from the road behind the dining hall. "It's from one of the girls' collections at home. It's a perfect heart, and she said I can use it as a paperweight or just carry it in my pocket for luck."

The mother held the stone and admired it. "It's beautiful," she agreed. "What a special thing for that girl to give you."

My eyes widened and my mouth fell open, and then I quickly regained my composure. The stone was beautiful, and it was a special thing for Becky to have given her. I found myself hoping that it would bring her luck - and lots of it.

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