For the most part, in these updates, I try to portray a general sense of what is going on at camp throughout the community. I figure if I can give you broad brushstrokes of what is going on the macro level here at camp, you will be able to generalize about your own children and have appropriate cues as to the questions that you might be able to ask them in letters to try to tease out actual things that are happening with him at camp (though, as a current parent of a camper, believe me, I get it. You are unlikely to get much out of them beyond “Send me books…..comics…..a new Diablo….some hidden candy!”)
As a fair warning, this update will not be a macro level missive at all. Today I will be writing about one child, his remarkable cabin group, and our terrific staff.
The boy, a first year fifth grader, showed up here on Friday with a fair bit of apprehension coursing through his veins. He had previously attended another summer camp that didn’t take very well (to be clear, a totally solid camp…just not one that matched his personality). So the whole idea of coming to a new place for another month-long stint made him really nervous. Now, I would like to say that Nebagamon is such a perfectly magical place that the moment that he stepped off the bus, his face lit up, his heart swelled, and he screamed “I am home!” But, reality does not work like that. Truth is, when he stepped off the bus, he was scared, he felt alone, and he wanted nothing more than to turn around and get right back on that bus. Plain and simple, he didn’t want to be here. All of the telltale signs were there, slumped shoulders, virtually no eye contact, monosyllabic responses to questions, and yes….tears.
He also found his SPOT. Anyone that has ever felt homesick at camp has a SPOT. It is the place that you go when you are feeling really bad. The place you go, not to work on getting better, but rather to be alone and wallow in your discomfort. His SPOT was a swinging bench located just outside the Big House. In those first 24 hours, he could be found there often…swinging alone, head down, shutting it all out…..feeling horrible. On each of the first two mornings, when I headed up to the Big House to work at 6:00 AM, I found him there, in his spot, feeling sad. Without a doubt, to all of us, the signs were clear, this was a guy that was going to need some help.
And that is when the Nebagamon family sprung into action.
Our staff, who, at this point in the summer, are seasoned veterans at working with kids that are struggling to become comfortable here at camp, were, in a strange way, excited to take on this challenge. Through their experience, they have learned how gratifying it is to work with a child that is having trouble, help him through it all, and watch the boy blossom and brim over with pride after he has bested his demons. They were professional, they were caring, they were right there on the spot working with the boy to make him understand that it was ok, natural, and even a good thing to be a bit homesick, and also to help to redirect him into activities that they knew would be the key to helping him through this tough time. They also understood that this was a process, there were no quick fixes, it required patience and persistence. They performed beautifully, and truly relished the challenge and the opportunity to help someone. That is what it means to be a counselor. I really love this place….
And then there were the boys in that cabin. I wish I could adequately express how amazed I am at those boys. The cabin, a mix of returners and brand new kids, recognized right away that for one of their crew, things were tough. From those first few hours, they made it clear that this was not just this boy’s problem to solve, but it was their problem to solve as well. I kid you not. Four different kids in that cabin came to me, unsolicited, to tell me that THEY were going to make sure he felt better. THEY were going to help him through this. THEY were the solution. I need to make something clear here. These are not paid counselors here to do a job, they are not fifteen year olds from the senior village in camp. These boys are fifth graders….ten and eleven years old. Imagine that, your ten year old son with the ability to empathize to such a degree that without any prompting he says “There is a kid in trouble….and I am the solution.” I really love this place….
And so it was that the work began. The work could be seen everywhere you looked. Whether it be a counselor cajoling the boy over to the ping pong tables for a conversation and a distraction, or another counselor making a point of specially inviting him down to his project area, or the boys inviting him along to projects, or the boys from his cabin, on the four square courts, noticing the boy swinging in his SPOT and shouting over to him, “Come play four square with us. I saved you a spot in line!” Yes, the work was getting done, and it was working…things were getting better. The signs were there.
In the Rec Hall, this boy had taken to plugging his ears often to shut out the noise of the place. Now, in fairness, as I have written several times before, the Rec Hall is a noisy place. In fact, just last week, four adults were driven out holding their ears during our raucous sing-a-long after the talent show. But with our boy, it seemed that this ear plugging was not just about the noise but also a symbolic shutting out of camp in general. Lately, though, his ears go unplugged in the Rec Hall. He engages in animated discussions with his cabin mates, and has even been witnessed banging on the tables in rhythm with the singing in the room. If you had seen him the first few meals, you absolutely would not recognize that this was the same kid. Sure, he still occasionally plugs his ears, but then again, so do I! I really love this place….
The nature of his SPOT has changed too. Sure, he still goes there sometimes. But, he is almost never there alone now. One of those amazing cabin mates has taken it upon himself to plant his own butt on that swing every time the boy retreats there. And there, the two boys sit, and swing, and talk. In fact, both of the last two mornings, as I made my trip up to the Big House to work in the quiet of the 6:00 AM camp world, I have seen our boy…and his friend…swinging on that bench and engaging in easy conversation. No longer a sad and lonely place. The SPOT has been completely transformed. The SPOT is the place where he connects and is comfortable. I really love this place….
Still…yesterday, my stomach sank when the boy came to me to ask if he could talk to me after lunch. Shoot….And just when it felt like we were making progress here. I have had a hundred of these discussions before. A homesick camper begging, pleading, sobbing, and imploring me to send him home. Despite the number of times I have been through it, it is always miserable and heartbreaking. Every time I have had that discussion, I left feeling deflated and yes, sad. So, I braced myself for the discussion. And after lunch, when we sat down, he looked at me…..and asked me…….to come and take his swim test with him. That was it. That was all he wanted. He wanted me to swim with him. Now, in truth, I have carefully avoided our waterfront directors all summer and found a way to NOT take that swim test. So, while on one level I was shattered that I was going to have to finally take the test, I was profoundly relieved to not have to have that dramatic discussion that I had been dreading. Relieved, I smiled and said I would be happy to meet him down there fourth period.
And, so it was that the two of us jumped in the water together yesterday and swam our laps at a snail’s pace. Not because either of us are weak swimmers, but just because it was fun. We swam slowly, and talked about vacations, about family, about activities at camp, and about the people at camp. Gone were the monosyllabic responses. This guy couldn’t stop talking! A clear sign of comfort, and, while I am sure he will have future moments of struggle with these very same issues, it was clear to both he and I that the hard part was behind him. He was winning…..and was going to win.
Towards the end of our swim, I had the nerve to ask him about the people that he had met since he arrived here and how he was feeling about Nebagamon. “Well, don’t feel bad Adam, but my other camp was definitely fancier. But….I can’t believe how nice all the people here are.” Admittedly, I cannot believe it myself sometimes. I really love this place….
All is well in the North Woods….