It’s only been a month and a half since my son Jonah returned from sleep-away camp and I’m already feeling nostalgic for that brief August interlude when he was on his own and my wife Cynthia and I were on our own. Not just because it was a break for us from the rigors of parenting a child with autism, but it was a break for Jonah from the rigors of being parented by the parents of a child with autism. We can make for a tense trio at times. It’s not just that we all worry about one another; it’s that we all feel the weight of being worried about. In any case, Jonah thoroughly enjoyed his eleven summer days – and ten nights – away as did his mother and I. We’re all especially grateful for how wholeheartedly Jonah was accepted into his summer camp community.
But the summer is over. Fall is here and with it comes a whole new set of worries. After thoroughly enjoying camp, Jonah, who’s 14, is back at school and enjoying it a lot less. Jonah attends a special needs school, here, in Montreal and for most of the last month we have been receiving reports expressing concern about some of the problems he’s having re-adjusting to the routines and pressures of the day. What has followed is what seems like a daily series of phone calls, emails, and texts back and forth and, along with it, an escalation of worrying.
Then, the other day, Cynthia and I arranged to meet with Jonah’s teacher, his psychologist, his social worker, his behavioral technician, the school’s educational consultant, and the principal. A lot of good will and hard work went into this get-together. There were reassurances the school would keep trying to figure out what was going wrong and what could be done to address making Jonah feel better about his environment. There was also a willingness to hear whatever feedback my wife and I had to offer about what might work best with Jonah. Even so, I confess I was only listening half the time. The rest of the time I was thinking about how much I hated these meetings, all these meeting we’ve had over the years to try to help Jonah fit in, be accepted, flourish. It’s one of the things parents of so-called neurotypical children don’t always understand about being the parent of a child with autism: it seems like you can never make a decision or solve a problem without consulting a dismaying array of experts, often experts who, when it comes to the mysteries of autism, are just guessing. It’s no wonder there are times you don’t feel like a family so much as a lab experiment.
I don’t know about Cynthia but I always end up feeling the same way at these meetings: like I’m the one back in school, experiencing that familiar back to school dread, the troublemaker about to be called on the carpet for whatever it is I’ve done wrong.
What have I done wrong? And what should I have done differently? When you are the child of a parent with autism or any special needs you spend a lot of time asking yourself some variation and combination of these questions. It’s no wonder I find myself missing those relatively worry-free days Jonah spent at camp. This October, they seem so long ago.
Campers and staff often state at the end of a camp session or summer that they wish camp could last all year long. The inherently temporary nature of a camp experience makes both the sweetness of its existence and the sadness of its conclusion all the more profound. As so many in this blog have pointed out so very eloquently, camp is an incredible place where people grow and develop in ways not possible anywhere else. For those of us who are lucky enough to work year-round for camp we know that “camp” is not just the experience that happens during your time in a cabin away from your family, but also how you live your life the other 49 or so weeks during the year.
Often in our staff training right before the start of a camp season we talk about how camp can be different from “the real world” as a way of illustrating how powerful the experiences will be that staff are about to create for children. A few years ago however, a staff member came to me somewhat upset and said, “Why do we keep distinguishing camp from the real world? Camp is as real as it gets. It is the real world and kids should know that.” Wow. What a great point this was! At camp, children are forced into an unfamiliar setting and are given the challenge to try new things, meet new people and form new communities, all without parental help or hand holding. Pretty real indeed.
When a camp experience is successful for a child (here, with Camp Tawonga’s mission in mind) they leave with higher self esteem, a sense of belonging in a new community, awe and appreciation for nature, and a deeper sense of their Judaism and spirituality. These are gifts that camp gives but they cannot be gifts that expire at the end of the camp program.
Instead, camp and the real world can become one and the same (or at least closer together) when everyone who has been given the gift of camp helps spread that out into the world around them. Whether it was a new skill, an improved self image or a more refined idea of what it means to create community and bring people together, deploying these “camp things” at school, youth group, theater, band or sports practice helps spread the good energy of camp even when you are a thousand miles or 49 more weeks away from the real thing. So host a Shabbat, go on a hike, have a sleepover and look in the mirror and smile back! In these ways we spread the gifts of the camp experience and make camp and the real world one and the same, so no distinction will be necessary.
Two quick days.
(Two four-week sessions.)
Middle of the school week.
(Middle of another delicious Georgia summer.)
60+ 8th graders.
(450 3rd-12th graders.)
A handful of faculty.
(Multitudes of young (and not-so-young) trained counselors and specialists.)
(Nearly 40 cabins, filled to capacity.)
An abundance of Hershey’s chocolate bars.
(An abundance of Hershey’s chocolate bars.)
There are a number of ways to compare the Davis Academy 8th Grade Gibush/Teambuilding Retreat to a whole summer at URJ Camp Coleman. School had just started, and camp had just ended. Over the course of the time we spent at Coleman, the 8th graders were present. There. Ready to do everything. Willing participants in the teambuilding enterprise.
As their Nadiv Educator, I’d barely transitioned from camp to school when we brought the 8th grade class. I would look out into the crowd at dinner and do a double-take. “Where is Bonim? Why aren’t the Chalutzim meltzing?” Then, I’d shake my head and realize that it wasn’t camp anymore. It was…camp. Davis Gibush camp. At Coleman.
Our 8th graders have taken the first steps on their journey to Israel. In a few short months, they will graduate. But first, to break the barriers. Everybody has their own smaller group of friends in the grade. How does the 8th grade become a cohesive unit? We started with Leaderskits, imagining as if they were Moses, looking out into Israel, not quite there yet. We continued with setting goals for learning for the year, low ropes, Israeli Dance and swimming. After dinner, the kids explored Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends” through silent contemplative prayer for nearly an hour, coming back together for s’mores and a poetic review of the Davis menschlichkeit values. The next morning, a walking (and running) Tefillah energized them for a morning of art, campfire cooking and Gaga before lunch and returning to Davis. One student’s mom relayed this story: After hearing a description of the activities, she said that the student had come back from an icebreaker retreat. “No, mom,” he demanded. “It was teambuilding.”
All of the magic of camp.
(All of the magic of day school. At camp.)
Two short days.
(A summer of memories.)