Back in October, we tried something new at the day school half of my job: Tefillahpalooza. You can read the post I wrote about it on the Canteen.
In conversations about how best to
#nadiviate (it’s a thing!), bridging my work between camp and school, my Coleman colleagues became enamored with the idea of having our own Coleman Tefillahpalooza. Another conversation about revitalizing tefillah at camp led us to creating a program called Hot ShoTz (a Sho”Tz is short for Shaliach Tzibur, the title of a service leader who represents the community by shepherding people through the prayer process.).
Our Assistant Program Director Scott Gellman, an HUC Rabbinical student and a Coleman person for decades, helped to develop all of the answers, and he had his work cut out for him. First, what was Hot ShoTz going to be about? Who would do it? How would we develop skills, not just as a ShoTz, but as an emerging leader in camp? What kind of materials would we present to our Hot ShoTz? And, what would be their final project?
Hot ShoTz consisted of our programming staff, songleading staff, and assorted volunteers. All were interested in developing prayer and leadership skills. Some had just arrived at camp for the first time in May, many were seasoned NFTY/youth group/camp graduates, and some have been counselors and programmers for years. Formulated and led by different clergy, under the watchful eye of Scott, Hot ShoTz sessions on Shabbat helped teach skills and examine the meaning and intention behind our services at camp.
As summer was drawing to a close, we knew the Hot ShoTz were ready to shine. Each participant was asked to choose a buddy and to prepare a Tefillah experience to be offered to a small group of campers, in their final project: Tefillahpalooza. In addition to 6 faculty offerings, there were 9 Hot ShoTz services to choose from at camp that morning!
The logistical challenges of sending the 650 members of our community to 15 different services were many: Campers are always supervised by staff at camp, even on a simple walk to another location. Locations were strewn all around camp. Campers needing to get to the lake or the pool after being out in the ropes course. What if it rains? But with careful work by Scott, and with the help of sign-ups with “Concert Stickets” (ticket stickers with name of service, location, unit and bunk number), everybody distributed with ease.
For 50 minutes after breakfast on Thursday morning, our Hot ShoTz (and our faculty) showed their stuff, and offered equally engaging experiential Tefillah programs in areas as diverse as playdough prayer, writing their own stories prayer, Cold-Pray (a Coldplay service), Improv, and “The Theatre is Our Temple,” where campers had a chance to examine and discuss movie and TV clips that portrayed Judaism.
After a summer of hard work and learning, everybody in the Coleman community got to see just how hot our Hot ShoTz are. And we can’t wait to have another Tefillahpalooza next summer!
“You’ll see, he won’t want to leave in the end,” my wife, Cynthia, said. “He’s going to have the time of his life.”
“Not if his soon-to-be bunkmates see him crying?” I replied. Cynthia and I were in the process of putting our son, Jonah, on the bus to Camp B’nai Brith (CBB). CBB is a little more than an hour drive north of our home in Montreal and the plan was for Jonah to be there, if everything went according to plan, for three weeks. It would be, by far, the longest he’d ever been away. All we could do was speculate—and we figured to do a lot of speculating in the next twenty-one days—on how he would fare.
Incidentally, Jonah wasn’t the crying boy. In fact, our son headed straight for a seat at the back of the bus as soon as we arrived at the drop-off point. I didn’t even have a chance to hug him. I had to mouth my “have a great time!” through the tinted glass of the closed window. In return, I received the most cursory of acknowledgements. As if he was saying: “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Cynthia, however, boarded the bus in order to get a proper good-bye. She insisted Jonah hug her. I got on the bus, too, to watch and glimpsed something I don’t think I’ve ever seen on my fifteen-year-old son’s face—the hint of a blush. Jonah is on the autism spectrum and one of that complicated disorder’s mixed blessings, in Jonah’s case anyway, is obliviousness to embarrassment. This has served to make Jonah a uniquely sweet, open-hearted individual; it also means he can miss signals from others, emotional signals he’d be well-served to pick up on. In fact, this was one of the main reasons we were sending him to sleep-away camp. We hoped he’d learn to understand other people a little better, pick up on their cues.
Meanwhile, the crying boy, who was twelve or so, was also oblivious—to the pleading of others. And a lot of pleading was going on. You could barely make the poor kid out from behind a gesticulating crowd of relatives. Still, I could see his head shaking vehemently and hear his spluttering voice. He was repeating the words: “I’m not getting on the bus.” The more he cried the more relatives seemed to gather around him, all trying out different, often conflicting strategies, to reassure him. Eventually, a SWAT-like team of CBB counselors appeared and did an impressive job of liberating the reluctant camper from all that overwhelming love and concern. Their mission was clear: they were going to get the show on the road.
We’re “helicopter parents,” research studies and thinky magazine articles are always reminding us. When it comes to the parents of special needs kids, like Cynthia and me, this is an especially tone deaf judgment, but it’s kind of a slam at most parents when you think about it. In the case of summer camp, in particular, who can blame us for projecting onto our kids a little of our own childhood experiences? For Cynthia, this usually means remembering how “interesting” (the quotes are hers) summer camp was. For me, it means wondering how I would have fared at camp seeing as how I never went. My guess is I would have cried myself to sleep nightly. Then again, maybe not. Fortunately, the camp cliché persists, especially for worried parents, about how the kids who make the biggest fuss about going end up not wanting to leave. But that doesn’t make those childhood complaints any less real or any less eloquent. I have a friend who came across an old letter she sent to her parents from summer camp when she was probably seven or eight. It began with a description of her day and proceeded to a detailed list of grievances. She signed off with this lawyerly appeal: “Please consider my case.”
Camps nowadays are good at considering the concerns of parents, at least. CBB does a wonderful job with its daily online postings of dozens and dozens of photos. I search for Jonah, first, of course, relieved to find him hanging out with his fellow campers in the pool or playing basketball or out in a canoe with one of his counselors. But after I’ve assured myself that it looks like my son is having a good time, I can’t help looking at all the photos. There are kids waving, hamming it up for the camera, others lost in play. The photos convey camaraderie and mischievousness and, most of all, a spirit of fun. So much so I wish I knew more about each of their personal stories.
“That’s him?” Cynthia said the other day, glancing over my shoulder at the super-slow slide-show I was watching on my computer. I looked for the latest picture of Jonah but didn’t see it. “No,” Cynthia added, “the boy who refused to get on the bus.”
She was right. It was him: in his floor hockey gear, smiling widely in one shot; with a wide circle of new friends surrounding him in another shot. He was the happy camp cliché personified: he looked like he never wanted to leave.
In partnership with The Jewish Week’s “The New Normal” blog, FJC is pleased to present a series of blog posts featuring a range of different voices sharing the power and benefits of Jewish camp for those in our community who have disabilities.
We have all heard that Jewish summer camp is one of the most valuable experiences a parent can give their child to ensure a strong Jewish foundation. If you think of it as a construction project, the footings beneath the foundation is community and together, this community builds the foundation they share. As each child grows into an adult, the shared experience of community-building in a Jewish context continues to strengthen his or her Jewish foundation.
But the Jewish child with disabilities who cannot have a summer camp experience is left with an unstable foundation or worse; no Jewish foundation. As the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I live with the fear shared by all parents of children with disabilities: Who will be my child’s community when I am no longer here to provide it?
At age 11, we began sending our son to overnight Jewish summer camp with his younger sister. A condition of his acceptance, we contracted with the camp for a one-on-one aide who slept in the cabin with our son and shadowed him as he moved with the mainstream campers. Each year it became more apparent that our son lacked the social and life skills his cabin-mates had developed and lacking these skills in a mainstream environment, our son would not be perceived as a full participant in this community.
Though we had resisted the model of separating campers with special needs from mainstream campers by cabin, at the urging of our rabbi, I contacted the director of Ramah Wisconsin’s Tikvah program when our son was 14. In describing the program, the director explained that every year since his arrival, the Tikvah program had become more integrated with the greater Ramah community. To my surprise, he suggested we keep our son in his current camp for another 2-3 years, at which time he believed Ramah would be ready for him.
After much discussion that included Ramah staff traveling from Chicago to our home in Minneapolis, our son left for his first summer as a Tikvah camper when he was 17. Tikvah campers are connected to Machon (campers entering 10th grade) from which a select group are chosen by staff to be paired with each Tikvah participant as their chaver (friend). Four weeks later at visitor’s day, I observed that the culture of the camp was one of acceptance, regardless of ability, with staff and campers embracing everyone in the Ramah community. With his chaver, our son participated in both typical camp activities and special programs for the Tikvah-Machon group.
After two years, our son moved into the Atzmayim (vocational) program where campers live in dormitory-style housing and focus on social skills and life skills development. Ramah staff trained our son for his job in town and also provided a job coach, ensuring he always felt like a productive member of a professional team. Five days a week, he had to prepare himself for his work day, beginning with prompt attendance at morning services, dressed for his job in town.
As a guest last summer on a non-visitors day, I witnessed my son as a full participant in the rhythm of Ramah, comfortably engaging with campers and staff and taking responsibility for his personal care with a conscientious focus on his summer job at the local grocery store. I also saw my son embracing Torah study and discussion about a myriad of Jewish topics, which made him feel so proud to be part of this Jewish community.
Now 21, our son is completing his final summer as a Tikvah/Atzmayim camper. Looking back, I can honestly say that each summer we witnessed significant social and emotional growth, along with life skills development; all of which has contributed greatly to his self-confidence. Through these programs, our son was given a safe, nurturing Jewish environment in which to grow and develop on all levels. Through Ramah and its culture of acceptance, our son was able to experience community-building in a Jewish context and after five years, he leaves with a solid Jewish foundation.
The following is the second in a three-part series on how to help safely navigate the world of social media with your kids from Sue Scheff, a mother, author, parent advocate, and expert in internet safety education.
Cyberbullying is a concern for all parents. We can’t be with our children 24/7 and the fact is our kids spend more time in cyberspace than they do with us. The most common form of cyberbullying among tweens and teens happens with cell phones. We need to equip them with the knowledge to handle cyberbullies and prevent them from becoming victims.
Since your child either just came home or will be coming home from camp soon, let’s be sure they are well-prepared to know how report online abuse and, most importantly, know they can come to you if they witness it or are a victim of cyberbullying.
Going back to the study of Teens and Screens that I referenced in my last post, in 2014 cyberbullying tripled. 24% of tweens and teens lack knowledge on what to do in the event they witness online abuse or are a victim of it.
According to Cyberbullying Statistics for 2014, 52% of teens report having been a victim of cyberbullying. Sadly, only 33% of those victims have reported bullying to parents or another adult. A recent European study showed that over half of teens view some level of cyberbullying as a normal part of online life. By having open and frequent face-to-face chats with your child about digital citizenship, hopefully we can eliminate this opinion of cyberbullying.
First we need to understand why tweens and teens don’t tell their parents.
1) Fear of consequences: Your child’s online existence is a critical part of their social life. With all their friends online, being excluded would be devastating them. They don’t want to risk you banning them from their friends and their digital lives.
2) Humiliation and embarrassment: Our kids are human and have feelings. Although some kids portray a tough persona and believe they are invincible, deep down everyone feels hurt by cruel keystrokes. Your child may fear looking stupid or weak. If the incident gets reported to their school or camp, will they be able to face their classmates and campers? Imagine the horror of a child hearing from peers after being bullied that they somehow deserved it, brought it on themselves or should have just toughened it out rather than be a snitch.
3) Fear of making it worse: We have taught our children well so they understand that bullies are looking for attention. By reporting the incident of cyberbullying to a parent, your child may fear it could anger the bully and make matters worse for them online. In some cases bullies will enlist more online trolls to cyber-mob your child. Of course the child’s dreaded fear is his or her parent reporting it to their school or camp and more people knowing whereby they become a possible target in the future.
Building a strong digital relationship with your child:
1) Speak openly about cyberbullying: Communication is key to helping your child understand that you are their advocate not only offline, but online too. Talk to them about cyberbullying prevention and remind them of the basics such as:
- Never engage with online bullies
- Never give out passwords
- Never try to seek revenge on a cyberbully
- How to block bullies
- Save evidence of cyber-bullying, especially if you have to report the bully to a school or camp
2) It is not their fault: Being a victim of a cyberbully is not their fault. Remind them you are not going to judge them or blame them. Assure them that you will not revoke their Internet privileges or take away their phone if they are cyberbullied. As I mentioned earlier, the Internet is an important part of their life so if they feel threatened that it will be removed, they may believe it is easier to be bullied and emotionally tormented. We don’t want them to be feel this way, it is not healthy for anyone to have to tolerate.
3) Listen: Communication is also a two-way street. Be sure you hear what your child is saying. Many victims say what helps most is to be heard — really listened to, either by a friend or an adult who cares. Hopefully that is their parent. Cyberbullying may not be physical, however the emotion scars can be deep. Listening to your child respectfully can start the healing process. Never diminish their feelings and let them know you are their advocate.
I didn’t expect to cry when I picked my kid up from camp.
When I dropped him off at the bus? Totally. I skulked past the more experienced parents doing the hora in the parking lot as the bus pulled away, got into the front seat, shut the door and started crying.
But when I picked him up, I expected it to be all sunshine and happiness.
And it was.
But there was another component to it.
See, I mistakenly expected to get back the same kid I sent to camp. And I didn’t. And that made me cry tears of happiness.
This kid was taller. His hair was longer. He was definitely dirtier (“This IS my clean shirt!” he said as I pointed out that the shirt he was wearing looked a lot like he had cleaned the bunk floor with it before putting it on.). But I don’t sweat the small stuff, and that is all small stuff.
My son had changed for the better.
When he took my husband and I to see his favorite spot at camp, he wasn’t quite sure he was going the right way. Without any prodding, this nine year old went over to a teenager and her family—people he’d never seen before—and politely asked them for directions. That was maturity. That was impressive.
But in addition to the maturity, there was something else that I couldn’t quite pinpoint at first. As we kept talking, though, it made itself evident bit by bit. It was in the Hebrew words, naturally sprinkled through his speech. It was in the joy with which he demonstrated the hand signals that corresponded to the Hebrew song they sang every day before lights out. It was in his questions about what is going on in Israel now, and what we can do to support the Jewish state. And it was in his descriptions of the camp gathering for Kabbalat Shabbat by the lakefront, and when he spent part of the car ride home demonstrating that he now knew Birkat Hamazon by heart.
My son was happily, joyfully proud to be Jewish.
I’m not saying this was a sudden change—I like to think he was already proud of the identity we built for him at home. But it was different: going away to a Jewish camp had given him the opportunity to make Judaism his own—a key and critical part of himself, who he is and who he will become. At camp, he could grow, physically and emotionally, and as a Jewish individual—the person he will be and develop for the rest of his life.
My son came home from Jewish camp a taller, more mature, joyful Jew. And I couldn’t be happier.
The following post is the next in our summer series hearing from the camps that were launched as a result of FJC’s Specialty Camps Incubator.
How does one describe the feeling of opening a new specialty camp? Awe inspiring, and an amazing challenge. I came into the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy with ideas, a framework, and a mission: to instill Jewish identity through science and technology. Over the last year, while fleshing out those ideas and expanding that framework, I still had only an inkling of what an incredible place this camp would become.
Sci-Tech is a specialty camp; similarly to our sister camp, URJ 6 Points Sports Academy, we offer dedicated periods of time to specific activities where our campers can learn about a subject in which they are passionate. In our case, those activities are robotics, digital media production, environmental science, and video game design. These workshops are supported by a variety of chugim (electives) taught by our stellar staff with backgrounds in programming, chemistry, and virology (just to name a few), who teach their subjects at a level very approachable by 5th-9th graders, but much more intellectually complex than I ever expected. Surrounding the workshops and chugim are camp’s core Jewish values—curiosity, discovery, respect, and connection—and a Jewish camp framework—morning blessings, song session, and Shabbat.
We’re creating an environment for a group of campers who might have never experienced a Jewish camp if it weren’t for the science and technology. Our goal has been to meld in-depth science and technology learning provided by our workshops with a campy and fun feel that only song sessions and cabin bonding can offer. In daily song sessions, campers look forward to singing “Why Does the Sun Shine,” an informational, yet energetic song by They Might Be Giants, followed by “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.” At breakfast, a staff member examines a great Jewish scientist or innovator before we join together in Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals) full of ruach (spirit).
‘Only at Sci-Tech’ is a phrase that many of our Faculty have used to describe the environment here at camp. In my opinion, only at Sci-Tech can our campers find friends and build relationships with other campers who feel and act just like them. Campers are incredibly driven and enveloped in their projects and experiments at camp, but share these passions, and work, with other campers. All of our workshops have campers working in groups to accomplish things like building a Rube Goldberg Machine or developing a new video game. When there are activities that are independently driven, campers are working together towards a common goal or on a single project; for example, campers in our Virtual World chug work together on their own computers while physically in the same room to re-creating buildings and structures in camp using Minecraft. The amount of productive discussion and friendly cooperation that campers exhibit here at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy is simply astonishing.
Thankfully, after an intense week of creativity and innovation, camp has the privilege of celebrating Shabbat. We take time to reflect on our amazing accomplishments from the past week—filming a movie, building a robot, making a fossil, etc.—and infuse our core beliefs into the learning and fun we have had. We are only just under two sessions into the existence of camp, and I know that the experience we are providing here is opening up children’s eyes to the Jewish and scientific & technological worlds.
The following is the first in a three-part series on how to help safely navigate the world of social media with your kids from Sue Scheff, a mother, author, parent advocate, and expert in internet safety education.
Do you consider yourself a savvy digital parent? While your kids are away at camp during the summer, it can be a great time to get caught up on learning about the cyber-lives of youth today. The more you know, the more you can better communicate with your kids regarding their digital lives.
The results of a recent 2014 study by McAfee titled, Teens and Screens, should be a wake-up call for parents. Some of the staggering findings include:
- 59% of tweens and teens engage with strangers online
- Cyberbullying has tripled, yet 24% of the respondents admitted they don’t know what to do in the event of online abuse
- Tweens and teens are still over-sharing their personal information, with 14% admitting posting their home address
Exactly what do you know about your child’s online life? Most know about cyber-safety 101:
- Limiting screen time
- Telling kids to never give out passwords
- Parental settings/controls and monitoring kids’ and teens’ social media activity
- Being kind online – explaining to your kids to think before they post
- and other common cyber-security issues
This is all very important, but let’s look at some issues you may not have considered.
Some virtual friends are actually strangers.
At camp your child is meeting many new friends and people. They will be expanding their social networking circles and it is fun learning about new people and their lives.
What your child needs to understand is that there are restrictions. When they come home from camp and jump on their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networking sites to add their new friends—that it should be limited only their real friends from camp.
What does this mean?
Many kids can get distracted into friending or adding people that are friends of friends—and before they know it they are connected to hundreds of people they don’t really know and have never met. Why is this not a good idea?
The main reason: your child’s future is at-risk.
Your child’s digital image is their future. His or her online reputation will be what determines their college and employment future. 98% of employers now say they will run an Internet search on an applicant and 77% of those with a negative online presence are not invited for an interview. College recruiters are reporting the nearly the same statistics—they are putting your child’s name through an Internet wash-cycle, and how it spins out will determine if your child secures a spot at a college of their choice.
What does this have to do with a virtual friend that is actually a stranger?
Adding people to your friends list that you don’t know in real life is not a smart idea for anyone, especially kids. Since you really don’t know them well or their online behavior, you risk them lifting photos, manipulating them and re-posting them on sites you may not approve of. They may use your comments out of context, or worse—you may upset them and they might create a slime campaign with your name.
What to do? An action plan for parents.
When your child arrives home from camp this summer and starts chatting about his or her new friends, it is a great opportunity for you to put your digital parenting hat on. Your child will probably keep in touch with these new friends through social networking, which is a benefit of our social media, however let’s discuss friending—now.
This is a perfect opportunity to also have your child clean out their friends list of others they possibly don’t really know. Especially if you have a teenager that will be applying to college soon— explain the reasons for this. This is not about you not wanting them to have friends, but in reality these aren’t friends—they are virtual strangers.
It is hard for children to understand this, as adults we learn with maturity that our friends are a reflection of who we are. We have to start instilling this into our children. Explaining to them that they don’t want friends that are making them feel uncomfortable because of what they post or if they don’t contribute positive content.
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are full of people that they probably won’t miss. Unfriending is really painless. Visit www.JustUnfollow.com which will will let you know who isn’t following you back —or even inactive followers – on Twitter. That is a great start.
Safety is always a priority. Be an educated digital parent.
Its ribs and wings night. I’m with my husband and eight month old son for two weeks at the camp where my husband and I met and fell in love. He’s the rabbi in residence and I’m playing and relaxing for most of the day with the baby. Camp is peaceful and is mostly how I remember it. Except for ribs and wings night.
Campers are exiting the kitchen with trays laden with spicy buffalo wings and what, I must admit, are some of the best barbecue ribs I have ever eaten. Each time a camper reaches his or her table the entire bunk erupts in mad applause and then sets about the task of even more madly devouring the meat as fast as possible, only for the camper-waiter to return to the kitchen and start the process over again. The salad bar, roasted sweet potatoes and crispy fresh cabbage slaw are on the whole being ignored, and by the end of the night the bones strewn about the tables and heaped into trash cans make the dining hall looks somewhat like a very productive archeological dig.
As my son happily plays on the grass after dinner (after all, his tummy is filled with delicious wings and ribs as well) I ask myself: What’s with the meat mania? There is meat almost every day at camp, and while the wings and ribs that the kitchen turns out are truly exceptional, they are no more so that the amazing roasted cauliflower or the Indian quinoa and tofu veggie meal from Friday night (yes, camp food really has improved!). Why does my otherwise peaceful camp go insane every time there are wings and ribs?
Like brisket, potato latkes, homemade birthday cake, fresh matzah brei and turkey with stuffing, the wings and ribs served at camp are delicious, eaten infrequently, and aren’t exactly the healthiest meal around. The combination of these three factors creates the aura of a superfood (different from the kale and blueberry type of superfood) that is the stuff of legends. There is nothing wrong with indulging in a rarely procured, fatty and entirely delicious food, but there is a way to do so that we don’t get carried away.
To take a line from Pirke Avot (The Ethics of our Fathers), “In a place where there are no men [human beings], strive to be a man [human].” (Pirke Avot 2:5) In other words, enjoy the wings and ribs, but try to have some of the sweet potatoes and veggies with them. Check in with yourself every once in a while to see if you really are still hungry, and eat slowly, enjoying each delectable bite. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with applauding the arrival and consumption of a great plate of food, but I encourage you to do so with mindfulness of why and how the food attained such an elevated, important status.
Keep in mind as well that not all meals at camp (or elsewhere, for that matter) are as special as wings and ribs, but that they can be just as delicious and satisfying in their mundane-ity. The “profane” comforting breakfast of unsweetened oatmeal and banana I consume every morning at camp, including the morning after the “sacred” wing and rib night, reminds me to try to appreciate the continuum that is camp food.
There is definitely an amusing sub-genre of literature to be found in the letters kids send home from camp (anyone interested in a book called “Sh*t My Kids Write From Camp”? Drop me an email). Let’s just say that it is fairly clear that we no longer live in an epistolary society in which people pour out their thoughts and feelings on tear-stained pages. I mean, I did as a kid, but we have clearly established that I am a freak.
No, instead we live in the era of the tweet, in which children seem to think that three sentences, tops, can distill the essence of experience. And sometimes, surprisingly, they can.
I asked my friends who are parents of overnight campers for their favorite camp letters received from their children. None of this, note, was ever mentioned in What To Expect When You’re Expecting. Here are some of my favorites:
“Our bathroom smells HORRENDOUS. If you could please send Febreze Thai Dragon Fruit, I would love camp even more.” (Parent notes that said aroma is discontinued.)
“OMG Lebron went to the Cavs. Could you throw that poster of Lebron away. Love you.”
“Where is my package?”
“Dear Mom, I have no time to write.”
“I will miss you.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t take a picture with [sibling] because his poison oak is very contagious.”
“Dear Mom, you forgot to pack me a toothbrush. Can you bring one on Visiting Day?” (Note: Visiting Day = four weeks from date of letter)
“I have good and bad news. Good news is I found my lost flip flop. Bad news is in chess I lost a pawn and a knight.” (This was the entire letter)
“I learned how to light a fire with a lighter.”
And, my personal favorite:
“Dear Mom and Dad, Your last letter was too short. Love, David.”
Later this month, my fifteen-year-old son, Jonah, is off to Camp B’Nai Brith (CBB) in the Laurentians, about an hour north of Montreal. He’ll stay for a full session, three weeks, longer by far than he’s stayed before. Naturally, I’m feeling some anxiety on his behalf. Or projecting, as my wife Cynthia calls it. She has a point. The idea of being in an isolated place for a prolonged period with strangers and nature (i.e. mosquitoes and a lack of air condition and Wi-Fi) has never been my idea of fun. That’s why my case of cold feet will be getting colder as the day of Jonah’s departure approaches. It’s in my nature, as a person and a writer, to find inspirational quotes that may be appropriate to any given situation. Inevitably, though, the quotes end up being inadequately inspirational. Like this one from the British writer Julian Barnes: “Time… give us enough time and our best supported decisions will seem wobbly…”
I also find myself wondering how much Jonah really wants to go. Projecting again, no doubt. In any case this kind of information would probably be hard to pry out of any teenager. Still, I know kids must get cold feet about sleep-away camp, too. Cynthia enjoyed her time as a camper and later a counselor, but she also remembers her decades-old “Y” camp song word for word. The first couple of lines, alone, are a model of adolescent ambivalence: “I go to YCC, so pity me. There’s not a boy in the vicinity.”
Measuring Jonah’s mixed feelings can be tricky. Jonah has autism and he can have a hard time making it clear how he’s feeling. Cynthia and I know him well enough to read between the lines of his sometimes off-topic conversation. But we also look to his behavior for unspoken clues. The other day, for instance, my sister, Marilyn, and I took Jonah shopping to pick up some of the extra clothing he needs for camp. When he and I got home we showed everything we bought to his mother and then I put them on his bed so he could put them away as he does with all his clothing. We’d bought some pretty cool t-shirts and shorts so I figured he’d want to wear them till he left for camp in a few weeks. The next day though I couldn’t find any of the things we’d bought. I looked for them in every drawer. I quizzed his mother. Finally, I did what I should have done in the first place. I asked Jonah where all his stuff had gone.
“In my bag,” he said.
“What bag?” I asked.
“The one for CBB.” And, indeed, there they were. All stuffed into one of the gym bags he will be taking with him to camp. It seems he can hardly wait.
His keenness is reassuring. Never more so than last weekend when Jonah, Cynthia, and I visited the CBB’s pre-camp Open House. Jonah was happy to see everyone, including counselors and staff he didn’t know. If my son has a philosophy, it’s cornier than mine but a lot more, well, inspirational. Summed up, it’s something like: “A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet.” But he was really excited to see the counselors who were at CBB for his shorter stay last year. In fact, he seemed to have nicknames for all of them. “Hi, Quiet Wyatt,” Jonah shouted to one young man, who shouted back, “Hey Jonah, great to see you back!” He hardly looked like the quiet type, which was what made the nickname funny, of course. “Max and the Yaks” was what Jonah told me he calls the fellow who runs the camp’s circus program.
Jonah loves animals, especially unusual ones, so when he met his unit head, Mike, the two immediately hit it off, discussing animals from Mike’s native Australia. I volunteered kangaroos and received a look of disappointment from both Jonah and Mike. Mike seems to have had his fill of kangaroos as the iconic but hopelessly clichéd symbol of his country. Instead, he provided Jonah with a great deal of information about the platypus. “You know it’s one of the only mammals that lays eggs,” Mike said. Then he told Jonah it was from the small family of animals known as monotremes. “Like horses are equines and cows are bovines?” Jonah asked. “That’s right, mate.” Mike seemed to know just how to talk to Jonah, which was reassuring. Cynthia also found out that in Australia he was a teacher and had a class of kids with autism. Driving home, I already felt my feet warming up. Jonah and I also brainstormed about nicknames for his newest stranger/friend. So far, though, we’ve only settled on what Jonah won’t call him—Kangaroo Mike.