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?



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.


Here, Fishy, Fishy

Do you remember learning to fish? I do. Lesson one, courtesy of Sesame Street, has always stuck with me.

Unfortunately, Ernie’s fish call has never worked for me. In fact, it went quite contrary to my dad’s number one rule about fishing: be quiet or you’ll scare the fish away. Given his track record for fishing, I can’t say that I would recommend taking real lessons from him, but all the important things stuck. First, you never let your fishing pole swing around. Second, your hook should always be secure if it’s not in the water or about to be cast in. Third, if you’re not going to eat it, throw it back. Fourth, stroke the spines down.

There were other lessons, I’m sure. Some of them he merely modeled the behavior, never teaching us explicitly. I realized last week, as my kids were begging me to take them fishing, that I had no idea how to tie a hook onto a line. I remember watching Dad do this a thousand times growing up, but if he ever taught me outright, it went in one ear and out the other. I’m not much for fishing, so what use would I have for it?

Fortunately, while I was up at camp this weekend, my uncle showed me how to tie a decent knot in fishing line to attach the hook to the line. I have enough practice messing about with string that I picked it up quickly. When Monday morning came, I was eager to show off my newly acquired skill of awesomeness to my kids, so I grabbed the hooks, line, and a pair of safety scissors and marched them out to the fishing pond.

Life Lesson #Umpteen: if you try to prove that you’re cool, you will regret it. My first fail of the day was the classic error of assumption. We’re only supposed to use barb-less hooks at the camp, so I assumed that the person who purchased them had bought barb-less hooks. Apparently, however, our local department store doesn’t carry such things, so he bought regular hooks that we were supposed to flatten with pliers. In my excited attention to tying line to sticks and hooks to line, I somehow managed to completely overlook the fact that I was giving the kids barbed hooks.

Through sheer dumb luck and rigorous consequences held over the heads of anyone who failed to follow the safety procedures, no one was injured horrifically by the barbed hooks. Unfortunately, through another stroke of sheer dumb luck (and a bit of cruel ingenuity involving a rather large ant), one of my kids actually caught a fish. At that moment, I remembered another lesson I had learned by observing my dad: the most experienced grown-up takes the fish off the frickin’ hook.

My co-counselor is 19 or 20 and built like a brick wall. Given this and the fact that he’s a guy, I held the line gingerly and looked at him imploringly to take over and get the fish off the hook. That was another incorrect assumption – he had never been fishing before. Dad, I know you’ll laugh at this, but I was the oldest, most experienced fisher in the group. I had to dig down deep to get through what happened next. As calmly as I could manage, I told my cluster of campers what Dad had always told us about smoothing down the spines from the head to avoid being stuck and did my best to mimic the practiced care with which I always watched Dad release a fish. I held the line with one hand then gently grasped the fish with my other. I moved my hand down the line to the hook to remove it…

And that’s when I realized we were not fishing with barb-less hooks.

At first, I tried to remove the hook with minimal damage to the fish’s lip. That might have worked, by the fish freaked out and flopped and I freaked out and dropped it. I directed the successful fisher to drop the line back into the water to let the fish (and I) breathe before the second attempt. I then resolved that quicker was better, for myself and the fish, and decided that I wouldn’t worry about how chewed up the fish’s lip got in the process. I was on my way to succeeding when one of the girls (looking in through the gills), decided to start describing in detail what she could see of the fish’s inner workings.

Plop! Back into the water he went. I suggested that we let the fish swim around for a minute to see if he would free himself from the hook, but apparently the injured, oxygen-deprived, six-inch sunfish was not more capable of disentangling himself from a hook meant for a heavier, meaner, smarter fish. His little swim did give me enough time to come up with a plan: I’d hold the fish while my co-counselor used the safety scissors to cut off the offending end of the hook.

Lesson #Duh: Safety scissors will not cut through a stainless steel fish hook.

On the fourth attempt, I finally managed to yank the hook out of the poor suffering fish and toss him back into the pond to nurse his wounds in peace. The positive outcome of the event was that my kids were utterly convinced I’m mad cool for about twenty minutes. The pragmatic outcome? They are going to have to be angelic paragons of good behavior if they ever want to convince me to take them fishing again.


TNQDE: The Lunacy of Courage

I’ve mentioned already that being a camp counselor has been requiring me to grow. It seems like almost every day there’s something I need to do that would have been fairly firmly in the list of things I would be perfectly content to die without ever attempting. Strapping myself into a harness and being hauled into the air by a rope, for example, or teaching the fundamentals of number sense necessary to understand long division. This requires me to be something I never particularly thought I could be:


The AHCD defines intrepid as “resolutely courageous: fearless.” The word harks back to Latin. Our old friend in- means, of course, “not” and trepidus you might recognize from “trepidation.” Trepidus means “alarmed” or “afraid.” I haven’t dug the word up in the OED to find out where and how the word was initially used, so I can’t say anything about the original connotation of the word, but I do love the modern sense of perseverance that accompanies “intrepid.” Being intrepid is not just being brave, it’s determining to stick it out regardless of your misgivings.

Courage in itself is an interesting concept, from and etymological standpoint. “Courage” came to Middle English through Old French through Vulgar Latin from the Latin word cor, which simply means “heart.” I don’t know the history of the heart as a symbol for certain emotions, but it’s a persistent idea, and strangely juxtaposed to another word for courage: “bravery.”

“Bravery” actually has the most interesting history of the three words, so much so that I may get another post out of it later. For now, I’ll just skip to the amusing part and note that it hails from the Latin word barbarus, which they lifted most cleverly from the Greek barbaros, a word which means “non-Greek” or “foreigner.” The word is onomatopoetic and insulting, mimicking the barking of dogs, which is how the Greeks perceived the speech of anyone not speaking Greek.

Does this mean I have to be barking mad to enjoy life as a camp counselor? Quite possibly.