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Liam will not get in the boat. I can see his eyes start to water and I know that if he cries it will sting because his face is chalky white with the oil-free sunscreen his mother slathered on him this morning when she dropped him off. By the end of the summer she will take off his training wheels and he will bike to sailing by himself. A few years from now, I will babysit him and he will refuse to eat his vegetables like any moody pre-teen. A few decades from now we’ll send our own children to sailing and they will babysit each other when we go out. As our laugh lines etch themselves into wrinkles and summer tans turn to sunspots, the weight of the age difference between us will lift and we will watch our grandchildren sneak beers and dance at the Clambake.

But right now Liam is a scared eight year old and I am his sixteen-year-old junior instructor and he will not get in the boat. This is my second summer as a sailing instructor. This year, Liam’s two front teeth have grown in and jut out over his trembling lip and I am finally free of my braces. I coax him into his Opti with promises to come out in the motorboat right away. I hold the boat as he clambers in. From the sand I helplessly yell, “Tiller towards trouble” as he nearly collides with the dock. “You’re doing great!” I shout, giving him the thumbs up as his blue eyes widen in panic.

This is my job. Get kids in boats. Encourage them. Tell them they’re doing a good job. Don’t let them cry too much. Don’t let them hit anything. Try to teach them the points of sail. Try to teach them how to rig. Make them de-rig. Try to teach them knots. When there is no wind, make up something to do. When there is too much wind, make up something to do. Don’t let Tom be too harsh. Never let them go home crying. Try to get them to come back tomorrow.

The head instructor, Tom, is a local. He is from Barnstable and he doesn’t get this place. He sees over-privileged people with their own beaches and he wonders why our ‘yacht club’ is a mouse infested shack and doesn’t understand that we like it better this way. He doesn’t know it but this will be his final summer working here. Next summer, he will be fired because the kids hated him and he will start working at the boatyard off-island while I do a fancy pre-college program in Boston to pad my resume. I won’t see him again.

The same happens with all the instructors we have had. Some get fired, some move on, and they remain only in scraps of memory and remnants of stories they leave behind. No one will forget me though. I am part of the fabric of this summer community. I love these children inherently. I do not like all of them. Some complain. Some misbehave.  Some are rude and some are whiny. I get paid minimum wage while my peers drink on the beach. While they stay up all night hot-boxing the lighthouse, I make my curfew because I have to wake up for work. I feel alienated from them; in their eyes I am too straight-edged, too naive. I tell myself that I have a purpose, I get a paycheck, and I will be more prepared for the real world. But sometimes that is hard to remember and I know that their wealth will eternally cushion them from reality. But when I walk into the beach club for lunch I know the name of every single child.

And they know me. In a few years it will not matter who is the best at beer pong and who made out with whose houseguest. Each of us will be adrift, taking on the world all by ourselves. We will return to the island and be happy to see these other people who saw us cry at sailing class. Liam and his friends will take over the lighthouse from us, just as we took it from his parents and ours.

Of course, my job was about logging hours, making my own money, learning patience and gritting my teeth in the face of discomfort and difficulty. But peeling back the external lessons of work, it gave me a direction; it made me feel valued and beloved by my community. I am connected in a way that work rarely makes one feel in our larger alienated society. Liam is getting to be a pretty good sailor; perhaps he’ll be an instructor one day too.

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