I spent 4 days last week away from Greene Elementary, supporting my fifth graders at sleepaway camp.
For most of our students, Science Camp is the highlight of their primary school career. At lunchtime one day, over a lukewarm cheese sandwich and a nondescript bowl of mass-produced soup, a little girl informed me, “I’ve waited six years for this.” We sat at a table with a view of rolling green hills, in a dining hall filled with fifth graders from three schools from the region. I remember my own experience at sleepaway camp when I was her age, and I know exactly what she means.
The fifth graders spend months fundraising and planning and dreaming of Science Camp. And I’m planning too–thinking about the special supports that my students will need and the information I need to share with the camp folks who will receive them. For each child, I write a little paragraph of introduction, making sure to get at least two positive, human traits in before I slip in the diagnosis, being as specific as I can about ways to support. I talk to the parents, reassuring them that their child will be well taken care of, answering whatever questions I can. The camp does inclusion beautifully and is very committed to making camp accessible to all students: if need be, they have a separate cabin where parents can stay.
Yosef’s father takes them up on that immediately, promising Juan Carlos’ family that he’ll be looked out for as well. Finn’s dad came to fourth grade Science Camp, but this year, Finn thinks he’s ready to tackle it alone. Angus has been to a number of sleepaway camps before this one–however, they were all specifically geared towards children with aggressive cancer. This is his first shot at ‘regular camp’; he is characteristically optimistic, his parents characteristically anxious. We soon learn that one non-advantage of Non-Cancer Camp is that it lacks the built-in nursing skills that Angus requires: while the family explores their options, I spent a couple afternoons learning how to jab a needle full of growth hormone in my student’s rear end. About which, for the record, Angus is characteristically optimistic, flooring me once again with the tenacity of the students I serve.
In the end, having a parent who practiced law full-time before her kid got cancer turns out to be a way to make things happen in terms of Required Accommodations. Monday morning, a full time nurse shows up to join us. Ms. Laurie, alas, is less physically fit than Angus. Later in the week, she will attempt one hike with us and turn around within ten minutes. But she’ll stick him in the butt, and that’s what matters to me.
Thus Accomodated, Greene Elementary’s full inclusion team is ready for Science Camp, and to describe all the adventures that took place in that week would go well beyond the scope of this blog. Yosef’s father, who is in the process of suing the school district for our incapacity to get his kid up to grade level, tries feebly once to get Yosef to eat salad. Juan Carlos listens somberly to the naturalist’s words about Grandmother Oak, the old tree that forms the landmark for one of the trails, and then informs me twenty times that it’s sad that she’s dying. One night’s entertainment is a kid-produced Talent Show: with his usual ebullience as well as his intractable stutter, Angus signs up to present what he bills as a “One-Man Interpretive Re-enactment” (of what, he does not say). I squirm in the background as his number approaches, hoping that Greene students will at least clap politely. His performance is a skit about a narcoleptic sheep: somehow, magically, he brings down the whole house.
Finn navigates it all as best as he can–this new place, with new people and new rules, away from almost all the things he loves most in the world. His mother has pre-mailed letters, one to read a day. On a walking break, we check out and discuss the wiring system for the internet at Science Camp. Everything that Finn is used to having in unlimited amounts–food, drink, attention– is suddenly restricted and contingent on a line. The things that he usually has in tiny increments–unstructured wait time, new peers to interact with, multiple adults with multiple expectations– come at him in quantities that are too much for him to bear. He gets in the predictable power struggles with the high school students who serve as cabin leaders: after one naked tantrum, we decide it’s better for everyone if he showers in the staff lodge without a time limit. Tuesday night, we excuse Finn from a little of the evening program so I can sneak into his cabin and help him organize his bunk, which lost the whole cabin points because he simply didn’t know what it meant to “keep things organized,” and because those around him tried to help in ways that pissed him off. Throughout his time at Science Camp, Finn tries mightily to adapt to the expectations around him: he is successful almost all of the time, and when he isn’t, the fallout is so much milder than it used to be. At the same time, though, we see the toll it’s taking on him–the look of distress that passes his face when the noise in the dining hall reaches a certain point, the response he bites back before agreeing to do something he doesn’t want to do, the patience he summons to wait, again, in line. It’s all good stuff, all healthy, but we know it’s a lot. Finn and I conference with his mom on the phone Wednesday morning: we make the plan that she’ll pick him up one day early, because that’s what he needs. We frame it, not as a setback, but as a success, realizing that last year’s whole experience was just three days, for everybody. Realizing that last year, a parent stayed the whole time. “This time, you handled yourself, and you made your own good choices. It’s okay to choose, Finn, to only stay four days.”
One day early means he’ll be there for the dance–the Barnyard Boogie that generations of fifth graders see as a sort of rite of passage. It’s a heavily managed cross between a sock hop and a Zumba session: the counselors lead the kids in a variety of ridiculous group dances, but there are also opportunities for Girls to dance with Boys. They are highly, highly structured opportunities, with the designated partner dances specifically designed to switch every fifteen seconds or so. Still, for many kids, it’s the first time when this stuff is on the table, officially: when there’s an expectation that you might ask someone to dance or respond when someone asks you. The kids come to the evening with their own preconceptions about what a Fifth Grade Dance Event might be like. They are far more dramatic than reality bears out, of course, but there’s a value, I think, to the anticipation. Every day at Science Camp, there’s a classroom meeting during the time when the cabin leaders are free to shower and do their own things. On dance day, the talk is all nervous giggles and heartfelt insecurities. Do I have to dance with everyone? How much can we dress up? What do you do if nobody will dance with you? One child asks, “Can a boy dance with a boy?” I am listening, as an adult, to the questions and the answers, but a part of me is listening as just these children, too.
Juan Carlos and Yosef last fifteen minutes at the Boogie: it’s simply too loud, and they’ve lost interest halfway through the Chicken Dance. Angus–tiny, stuttering, red-cheeked and optimistic– has a marvelous time, and I grin myself as I watch him grin, dancing with a girl from another school who is easily two feet taller than he is. Finn needs a number of walking breaks to cope with the noise, the lights, the movement: on one of them, I tell him, “Congratulations–you made it to your last night of Science Camp.” Sincerely, I follow up with the words, “I’m proud of you, Finn.” He smiles, does the thing he’s recently learned to do where he feeds a compliment back at the giver, and then moves quickly and deservedly from “I’m proud of you, Teacher Beth” to “I’m proud of me, too. It was a challenge, but I did it.” He challenges himself, again, and goes back into the dance hall: I stay outside with a group of his peers who need a break for different reasons. Maggie’s hay fever is acting up again. Audrey keeps her company, exclaiming at the stars above. Ryan keeps Audrey company, and I smile to myself because I know he is desperately summoning up the courage to dance with her. Jeya sits alone, neither seeking the others nor excluded by them, and a part of me wishes I were her inclusion teacher, because she never really seems at ease in a group. When another adult steps out for a breather, I head back in to help supervise the dancers inside.
The speakers are blaring One Direction, and I am surrounded by the youth of my community–the clusters of old friends, the incipient dyads, the kids who will just meet each other briefly, just tonight. Some of them dance expertly along with the music, some of them move awkwardly and stay near the walls. I think about which one of them I was, and I think, with appreciation, about who many of them are now. I think about how much I’ve enjoyed getting to know them over the years, how exciting it is to see them now in fifth grade, on the cusp of new ways of seeing the world. I snap out of my reverie to look for my caseload. Juan Carlos and Yosef, I know, are already in pajamas back at Dad’s cabin. Angus is dancing with a group of new friends. I become a little nervous when I don’t see Finn immediately, but then I relax.
The strobe light illuminates him, frozen in the center of a mass of gyrating young people, frozen and transfixed by the lights on the wall.
And live while we’re young.