Friday was my last day of camp for the summer. I’m left with a terrible melancholy. I don’t know if I will ever get to see those kids again, and I already miss them. I’ve missed my school-year kids too, but to be honest with you, this summer was a lesson in how environment impacts relationships. Working in a beautiful place with caring, committed, engaged teachers who love what they do for an organization that made sure we had everything we needed freed me to turn much of my attention to developing relationships with my kids. Now that I’m about to be plunged back into the stifling box of a school cafeteria with one-fourth of the staff (relative to the number of kids) and a corporate funding system that gives me the barest of bare minimums to work with…
But it doesn’t do any good to have the director throw a temper tantrum, does it?
Not that camp was all peaches and cream. I had plenty of moments where the heat and the hiking and the exhaustion were all but overwhelming. Goodness knows I had my moments where I wanted to stick my fingers in my ears and run in circles singing, “I can’t hear you! LALALALA!” One of my kids, for example, had the worst attitude I have ever encountered. He’s a bright kid with a knack for drawing and writing, and he’s a quick wit to boot. If anyone in my group caught on to my habit of sill word play, it was usually him. The moments in which I got to enjoy these wonderful traits, however, were often in the far back of my mind when I was dealing with the fact that he whined about everything and constantly dragged his feet.
“I don’t want to hike.”
“Do we have to fish?”
“I hate those granola bars. Don’t you have anything better?”
“This camp sucks. I hate this place.”
I lost it with him towards the end of camp. I don’t remember where we were going, but I was hanging back trying to cheer him up and get him into the spirit. I was tired myself and struggling against a nasty headache when he announced that he wished he had never been accepted into the camp, and I just lost it.
“You know what?” I said. “I’m sick of hearing about how much you hate this camp. We work our butts off to try to make camp fun for a lot of different kids with a lot of different interests. You say you hate everything, and quite frankly, that hurts my feelings and I’m done listening to it.”
Then I walked away. I caught up with some of the other kids in the group, only glancing over my shoulder often enough to make sure he was still in sight and safe. He walked a little faster when I wasn’t trying to convince him to get his rear in gear, so I just left it at that. He never apologized to me for his attitude and I never apologized to him for getting angry. I didn’t interact with him very much for the rest of the day, which seemed fine by him. The next morning, we were back in our old routine, though he didn’t complain quite as much and I didn’t try quite as hard to persuade him to get engaged.
I’d like to say that I had a miracle moment with him where all of a sudden he saw the light and all of our camp experiences became a wonderland he could enjoy with reckless abandon, but I’d be lying. I struggled with his bad attitude right through the last morning of camp when he moaned that he wanted to go with the other group to do the exact same activity we’d be doing. The whining lasted up to the moment when he realized he might get a chance to build a fire.
What can I say? Fire can burn the grouch out of the worst of us, myself included. Since you can’t exactly let nine-year-old boys play with matches unsupervised, I worked closely with him and another boy as they tried to work out the best way to build a fire to boil water as some other teams from out group worked out other survival tasks like catching a fish and building a shelter. I love building fires, and the activity turned into a bonding over a common interest that had the three of us laughing and collaborating on a level I hadn’t managed to achieve with this particular student all summer.
We were supposed to build a one-match fire, on the premise that we were surviving a shipwreck with limited supplies. Our kit had more like thirty matches, fortunately, because we were working with damp wood and windy conditions. It took us all the matches save one to get that darned thing going, but get it going we did. When the smoking leaves suddenly caught the twigs, which eventually spread their warmth out to the larger sticks, the three of us could have been mistaken for a laughing pack of hyenas.
The joy did not carry so far into the day as to induce this child to dance at our pizza party or swim during swim time or share during our closing circle. I doubt that it will break through his tightly held shell of pretended coolness anytime soon. This kid is a geek who hasn’t yet learned that being a geek is awesome, and at this point all I can do is hope that some memory of camp will eventually contribute to him learning to love living in his own way. I think much of my frustration with him stemmed from the fact that I have lived most of my life in his tiny, scared shoes and I still didn’t know how to draw him out to dance barefoot in the grass. It takes more than one small pan of fire-boiled water to release a person from that kind of fear. I know that, believe me.
And yet…when we were shooing the kids onto the buses for the final time, this boy hung back from the rest to look up at me with a grin that split his face in two. “I’m definitely coming back to visit, Miss Melissa.”
Did I mention that I already miss my kids?