Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Jelly Goes on Everything -- A Report from the Camp Chaperone

I recently spent four nights as a chaperone at an environmental camp for 100 sixth graders. To deconstruct that sentence a bit, I’d like to point out some key words:

CAMP: all the fun of a hotel, minus mattress, en suite bathroom, yoga studio and day spa

FOUR NIGHTS: see above note on mattress, or lack thereof

ENVIRONMENTAL: Walking barefoot in the muck pond, eating live worms, sampling tree lichen and tasting aspen bark. Plenty of bugs, oodles of ticks and a big boatload of nature

100 SIXTH GRADERS: Trickling down to me and one other mom in a cabin with 10 girls every night. (And did I mention FOUR nights?)

If you’re wondering how someone who complains as much as I do ever ended up participating such an endeavor, I blame the mommy biz, which caused me, when faced, in February, with a highly anxious daughter, to say, “Of course it will be fun! Why, I’ll even go along with you!” And then, the next thing I knew, it was mid-May, and I was packing my sleeping bag and tick spray. I had, it would be safe to say, a few misgivings.

And yet, I had a good time in some utterly unexpected ways. Of course, there was the sheer joy that arises from surviving anything awful and knowing it won’t be happening again (example: childbirth). Even in an environment that seemed very far from my own emotional setpoint, I found myself behaving in ways that were, even in a strange situation, utterly typical for me. I disliked the camp authority when it made no sense, especially when it was clear that the established rules were sheerly for the comfort of that middle-aged woman mindset that rules most institutions. I rebelled as quietly and as often as possible, and I’m sorry to report that I encouraged others to do so, too.

The best part for me came down to what I always like most, which is listening to what kids have to tell me. I delighted in every conversation I had, with the possible exception of those that happened after 11 pm nightly, when I was brandishing my flashlight and threatening bodily harm to a group of loudly wakeful tweens.

The camp included 40 students from my daughter’s city-based school, and many others from outstate Minnesota schools. The dynamics of the group split as infinitely as atoms: sporty/non-sporty, future delinquents/future student council members, country dwellers/city kids – and, of course, the largest divide -- boy/girl.

Adults were expected to sit at a different table for each meal, and kids were randomly distributed. My daughter hit the jackpot and was at an all-girl table, but another girl from her school was shipwrecked at a table where she was the only female, until I broke the rules and squeezed her into the all-girl setup. I ended up at many meals where I was flanked by boys, or back at that all-boy table. There they were, faces blank, waiting to see if I was going to be weird about table manners or cleaning their plates or whatever the last grownup had done.

I quickly brought up my worm-eating for instant street cred, and I could see them relax. I searched my memory bank for other table-worthy talk, and remembered the time I’d participated in minnow races at a tavern in Wisconsin, the kind where you had to eat your live minnow if it lost, which I did. BIG street cred. Then I pulled out my killer tale – eating Ecuadoran fried ants at Greg and Nancy’s wedding. The boys loved me, enough that they let down their grown-up guard and talked to each other about what was on their minds – Whether or not Pfiten necklaces really keep them calm when they went to bat; whose house had the best place to catch frogs; why you could tell the kids from the city because they tucked their pants into their socks, whereas the country kids weren’t afraid of ticks and kept their pants flapping (told to me by a country boy). They would start stories about dumb girls and realize halfway through that I might actually be a girl, but then I’d agree with them, and the story would continue.

Since, as a counselor said, one day at this camp was like three days anywhere else (honey, you got that right), I had lots and lots of time to talk with boys, and I gained a new appreciation for them, and for how they struggle so much in a world that seems designed by girls and for girls. I started noticing that the way they talked was so different from my daughters, who posed question after question in conversation. For the boys, everything was a declarative sentence. One boy was telling me what a great time he’d had at a game at the new Twins stadium. “Weren’t you cold?” I asked, and he told me, flatly, that no one could ever be cold there, because it would be so exciting to be at the game that you’d stay warm. Another day, they served us bagels with cream cheese and little dishes of jelly for breakfast. “I didn’t think jelly went on bagels,” I mused, trying to remember if I’d already told this table about my minnow eating and wondering if I could slip it in. “Jelly,” one boy said firmly to me, “Goes on everything.”

I’m back home now with my two daughters and their stream of friends, back in the world of nuance and tone and subtle emotional cues. I find myself missing those boys, just a bit. Everything seemed much less complicated from their side of the world. Someone who ate live worms was worth talking to. No one could possibly be cold at a baseball game. And jelly, of course, goes on everything.

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