To Light a Fire

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.”

“You’d better.”

Did I mention that I already miss my kids?



Six Boys Against a Boat

The big idea around the camp the last few weeks has been “opting in.” As the summer winds to an end, we’re all feeling a bit frayed around the edges. The bug bites and bruises that patchwork our skin are so extensive that we don’t look tan so much as mottled. The fatigue from hiking miles every day is building up in our muscles and our minds. The newness of exciting activities like boating is wearing off and kids are dragging their feet. No matter what the activity is, there are always a half dozen kids whining that they just want to… (insert some non-available activity here). I know how they feel, to be honest, but as a counselor, my job is to trick them into thinking they’re having an awesome time until they actually do start having an awesome time, which means that I have to act like I’m having an awesome time even if my head is about to explode from frustration, exhaustion, dehydration, etc.

This is why I ended up captaining a canoe with six crowded and cranky boys last Wednesday.

I wanted to go out in a canoe because we were boating in the morning and I wasn’t wearing my swimsuit. Going out in the kayaks means you will get soaking wet. Period. In a canoe, at least, the counselor sits on the seat up out of the water pooling in the bottom of the boat, so I had half a chance of staying mostly dry. I meant to take two boys who were excited about being in my boat, but as we were getting ready, I discovered that there were two other boys who didn’t really want to go out. I talked them into coming with me. Four boys wouldn’t be so bad, I figured. It would allow them to sit in the center in their own section of the boat so everyone would have room to paddle and maneuver.

The trouble is that we were so slow getting our act together that we were the last ones to leave the beach, and there were two boys left who didn’t have a boat. The boating staffer (oh, so helpfully) said, “You can fit six in a canoe,” and that was that. I couldn’t possibly tell these two children that they’d have to go out alone with one of the boating staff when I still had room in my boat, so in they came, regardless of my lack of confidence in my ability to handle a very tippy boat bursting with uncomfortable children.

What’s wrong with uncomfortable children, you ask? They fidget. They shift around. In a car, this might result in other children becoming annoyed with the fidgeting child. In a canoe that has two children sitting side-by-side in every compartment, each little fidget sends the boat keeling dangerously close to tipping over. As someone who spent a great deal of time fidgeting in a canoe as a child, I know the canoes are more stable than they feel. I also know, however, exactly how much it takes to send one rolling. (Not all that much.)

Unfortunately, the cranky children who weren’t all that excited about going out in the boats soured the mood of the other kids and our rolling canoe was filled with shouts of “We’re going to tip!” and “I hate boating.” I tried to lighten the mood by offering a song, but the kindest response I got was, “Fine, we’ll listen to your song.” I tried to make a game out of the rolling motion by calling out “Lean left! Lean right” It might have worked…if they actually knew their left from their right. “Lean right! No…your other right!” was not the best game. We stayed afloat primarily because I outweigh your average fourth grader by a wide margin.

In my next attempt to turn the ride into a fun memory, I steered the boat over toward the shore we could look for frogs sunning themselves on lily pads. The ploy might actually have worked, if I hadn’t forgotten an important difference between a kayak with three people and a canoe with seven: minimal water depth. We did not find any frogs, but we found a large formation of rocks lurking right beneath the surface. Sadly, instead of being filled with awe at the wonder of geology, they added another item to their list of cries. “We’re going to tip!” “I hate boating!” “We’re going to be stuck here forever!”

In all reality, it did take me perhaps longer than it should have to figure out that I could push the paddle against the lake bottom to set us free, but you have to give me a break. Gracefully navigating a canoe heavy with unhelpful hands takes practice that I have not had–a fact which came home to me when nature saw my struggles to entertain the kids and lent me a hand. We had been free of the rocks for a few minutes and were lumbering (yes, I wouldn’t have thought it possible either, but canoes can be made to lumber) slowly away from shore to the music of our complaint chorus when the wind stole my hat. It flipped quite gracefully off my head and around a loop-de-loop before landing about six inches out of reach.

What would have been a simple distance to navigate in a kayak became the torment of Tantlus in a loaded canoe. I made the mistake of leaning out to stretch my arm…all of the kids on the hat-side of the boat leaned to and it was only by the scared and frantic leanings of the kids on the hat-free side of the boat that we did not topple. Our next effort was to paddle the boat in a circle to get closer to the hat…if we were actually getting any closer, it was by tiny spiraling increments that could not be observed by our reaching arms. Each turn seemed only to swamp the hat further, sending it sinking beneath the surface.

My last ditch effort was to coordinate our efforts to paddle away from the hat, turn around, and approach it in a straight line. As I  called out “Paddle on the left!” I suddenly realized that I wasn’t hearing the complaints anymore. The boys were laughing and smiling and working as a team. We managed to sail up right next to the hat so the boy in the front could snag it with the handle of his paddle. It traveled from the bow to the stern to shouts and laughter as it dripped profusely on everyone until the boy sitting closest to me deposited it, sopping wet, onto my head, just in time for us to hear the “all in” whistle.

With our new attitudes and spirit of teamwork, we managed to make it into shore without any close calls with swimming. We even had the satisfaction of being the first boat back, by virtue of never having gotten very far of course, but to hear my crew tell it, we won a neck and neck race against the speediest boaters in the camp. I was pleased to see that they were laughing and smiling as they told their friends and the other counselors about the “worst boat trip ever.”

And all it took was an epic struggle against nature and a laugh at my expense.


The Stick and the Carrot

I’ve been told by other teachers that once you yell at a kid, you’ve lost. At that point, supposedly, they realize there is nothing else you can do to them. I suspect this is true under two conditions: (1) the child is a repeat offender whose exposure to the words “or else” has been greater than the length of his short-term memory, (2) the person doing the yelling stinks at poker.

Yesterday, in an amazingly bad turn of events, I ended up being in charge of dragging 26 hot, tired, cranky children from the bathrooms to the swimming area (a substantial hike across a very busy trail) with the support of two of our assistant counselors. That ratio would seem like a dream in a classroom, perhaps, but a classroom is not a summer camp. The appropriate ratio of adult to child in order to maintain order at camp, when the group is wandering all over the place, is 1:6. 1:8.66 might not seem like that big a difference, but trust me. It is. It’s the difference between order and chaos.

It was inevitable that someone was going to push me to use my scary voice.

Now that I think of it, there maybe a difference between scary voice and yelling. Hollering at a child from a distance never, ever, ever works. Children are excellent at pretending to not hear you. What is extremely effective, I discovered yesterday, is getting uncomfortably close to their face, looking them in the eyes, and saying in the best “Imma cut you” tone you can muster, “You do not want to mess with me right now.” You might need to follow it up with some plausible explanation of why this usually soft and cuddly counselor is hovering on the brink of insanity, such as, “I have to keep too many children safe right now to put up with this behavior.” If you do that, the child will probably require a reiteration of what you expect them to do. “Start walking,” “Hands to yourself,” etc.

If you don’t get a response, you might want to practice your “Crazy-but-also-deadly-serious” face in the mirror a few times. Ninety-eight percent of all children can be bluffed into action, with perhaps only five percent requiring some follow-up conversation. Fortunately for me, yesterday, the two percent who would have seen the gaping hole behind my bluff (namely, that I’m not exactly allowed to pick them up and throw them over my shoulders or throw them in jail for contempt of counselor) were responsible for the incident that required our director and two other counselors to be away from the group reinventing the Code of Hammurabi and were therefore with the other adults, not with my group.

I think the other factor that makes the scary voice effective is knowing when to use it. Kids want  to have their grievances heard. Scary voice is a tool for shutting them down in circumstances when taking the time to listen compassionately to the issue behind the behavior problem is going to endanger the safety of the rest of the group. If you’ve told the group to start walking and everyone but Child X complies, eager to get to swimming, you can’t take the ten minutes you need to persuade Child X, who is sitting on the ground sulking, to tell you all about it while the group walks. You need Child X to start walking thirty seconds ago, before Child Eager Beaver at the head of the line got out of sight and hearing range without noticing you were stuck at the back.

For scary voice to be effective, I think kids have to understand that you are usually a reasonable person who is more than happy to spend twenty minutes listening to their woes. If the scary voice comes out every time a child is acting up, you will lose the battle, if only because their short memories will start to register that scary voice is rarely followed by consequences. (And don’t even get me started on consequences. How is it that, speaking of Hammurabi, human law has been codified for thousands of years, yet teachers and parents seem to have to reinvent the legal system every time we encounter bullying?) Bluffing doesn’t work if the kids know for sure you don’t have an ace.

I was lucky, yesterday, that in the face of several minor medical emergencies and several large behavioral ones that my poker face scary voice never lost its power. Possibly it helped that I really was on the brink of a nuclear meltdown. Kids can sense that, and they’re smart enough to not want to be at the epicenter of the explosion.

Also, and this is just a hunch, but I think my case might have been helped by the fact that I was carrying all the ukuleles. Buy some. They’re better than sticker charts.


My Second Skin

When I was in college, a professor once accused my entire class of being racist. It was not meant as a negative judgement on his part, but simply a statement of unavoidable fact about the condition of being human. We live in a world where the color of your skin tends to mediate your experience in life, making race one factor that makes it more difficult to communicate with other human beings. Being aware of the influences those differences and even naming our biases were important steps in getting past them. I don’t think that I quite understood what he meant until last year when I was in a place where I was interacting with people with a wide variety of strong cultural backgrounds and learning about the ways that cultural and linguistic backgrounds do (and should or shouldn’t) influence a child’s experience in the classroom.

In the context of thinking about race in the classroom, I am most definitely aware of race. I do not see kids as better or worse, nor as more or less capable based on their skin color or accent, but skin color and accent are very salient reminders of a question that I try to ask myself of all kids I interact with: how is this child’s story different from mine, and how can my experience be best used to support them given the differences or similarities? Where is my life story going to make me react badly to some kids? Where is my experience going to make me more likely to favor others? Teachers always need to be self-monitoring for this, regardless of the diversity (or lack thereof) in the classroom: race happens to be a sensitive factor that’s easy to spot and therefore easy to focus on as a potential barrier to communication.

I was a little bit nervous about working with my kids this summer before they arrived. As they’re coming from the inner city, I imagined we would have a wide range of cultural backgrounds. We do. I have never worked with a group this diverse before–every group of students I’ve worked with or studied with has been composed of people who were primarily from cultural backgrounds very much like my own in many ways. As I watched the buses pull in on Monday morning, I was worried that my lack of experience would mark me fatally as someone who the kids couldn’t possibly trust to teach and care for them. I worried that I would misconstrue something simple and spin catastrophes out of crossed wires.

I won’t say that I’m suddenly convinced I’ve got these kids figured out. They are each a mystery, but comfortingly…no more so than my kids whose cultural stories are so similar to my own. Race and language are factors that add their own interesting flavor to the difficulty of learning to communicate effectively and demonstrating respect, it’s true, but they’re not insurmountable walls to be nervous of. I think that my heightened awareness of how difficult it is to communicate well probably balances out the equation–my fear of being a complete jerk unintentionally has me paying much closer attention to what both I and the kids do and say.

What’s more, I’ve rediscovered something I love about camps: they give everyone a common second skin. When you’re tromping through the woods swiping at spider webs strung across the trail and jumping away from ticks, learning to navigate a foreign and uncomfortable environment, the most salient thing about your skin is the way it feels. Sunscreen, bug spray, bug bites, dirt, spider silk, and dead bugs are the bricks of a new exoskeleton mortared together by humidity and sweat. Campers and counselors alike share this uncomfortable second skin, and believe me, we are all way more interested in counting our bug bites and overdosing on DEET than we are in anything else on the face of the planet and possibly the moon.

Common grievances, even against nature, seem to be a pretty darn powerful foundation for a community. Powerful enough to take precedent over the subtle difficulties in communication most of the time. I have mixed feelings about this, but I also suppose I will never have a better opportunity to be grateful for the unifying power of mosquitoes. I am therefore going to enjoy our the disgusting beauty of our second skins for what they’re worth and use this disturbingly-close-to-mud phenomenon as a foundation for the strong community we hope to build at camp.

Just for the record…I’m still taking a shower the minute I get home.

Lady Slippers & Lightning Bugs

I have a vivid memory of seeing a lady slipper for the first time. I was probably five or six at the time, and my family was out at our camp, which to this day retains its rustic camp-ness, even as many of the other homes on the lake are being wired for electricity and satellite t.v. The flower was tucked up against the back wall of the dark red camp, a tiny, pale, fragile life bravely eking a living out of those swampy woods where my father and his brothers habitually broke limbs as boys proving they were manly men.

It struck me as a strangely delicate thing to exist in such a rugged place, even then, and I thought it was the loveliest thing I had ever seen. I reached out to pluck it, but fortunately my grandmother was with me. She stopped me and explained to me that it was an endangered flower, which meant that it was illegal to pick them. That only gave the little flower a more magical quality in my mind. We didn’t get them every year, and if we did, I never saw more than one or two hanging on tenaciously in the woods by the swamp. Every time I have found one since then, I’ve felt like I’ve been given a precious gift, like being granted a wish by a good fairy.

Fireflies are another thing that have an almost mystical quality in my mind. To see fireflies, you have to be willing to look into the dark woods at night, and generally speaking, I’m not. My imagination has always taken a little too much liberty with my uncles’ already gruesomely fictitious stories of Hatchet Harry, fisher cats, and orangutans. Everyone knows, of course, that the best way to not be eaten by such creatures emerging from the woods is to stare very intently at the campfire, avoiding eye contact with any potential threat in the trees beyond. Making sure that there are plenty of relatives between you and the woods is unnecessary…just a reasonable measure of caution that makes you feel better about not watching your back. The real trick is the not looking into the shadows beneath the trees.

So, spending all of my time focused on the warmth of the fire and avoiding eye contact with imaginary fiends, I never saw fireflies as a kid. In my mind, they were this piece of summer lore that was fascinating, but touched with a hint of sidhe impossibility. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I have a single memory of looking into the dark long enough to notice the sporadic signals of fireflies calling out to each other in the blackness. When I did see them, they touched something in me that lives in the same part of my brain that is still moved by lady slippers. The something that sees infinite beauty in the ways life can thrive in unlikely places.

I had the opportunity to go out to camp this weekend with John, with many of our friends and family members coming to join us for a few hours here and there, and it was one of those weekends that was rich with moments that give you reason to appreciate the loveliness of life. One of the first things my sister pointed out to me when we got to camp was a forest of lady slippers in the swamp. They’ve been coming up in more strength over the past few years, but never have I ever seen nearly two dozen growing together in one place in a single year. It was incredible.

The pleasure of decent weather, good food, and excellent company we enjoyed at camp this weekend was bracketed with another incredible moment. On Sunday evening, everyone but John and I had gone home, so we were enjoying one last lazy campfire together to cook our dinner and burn the remnants of earlier fires down to ash. John had thoroughly indulged my taste for campfire music by singing along with the Irish folk tunes I’ve been learning, and we were huddled close to the fire as it burned lower and lower when I noticed something flashing in the woods.

My first thought was “Aliens!” because, let’s face it, you can’t take the irrational dreamer out of the academic. I breathed deeply until the reaction passed, and as I continued watching the woods, I realized that I was just seeing fireflies. John was as surprised as I was—it was a cool weekend, and we thought fireflies wouldn’t be out so soon. We started looking more closely into the dark trees, and we realized quickly that there were dozens of fireflies going courting in the late May evening.

It really was one of those weekends that makes you wonder if there’s a good fairy drifting around, just out of sight.