We all knew about it and had been hearing about the possibility of it for years. It was the 1970s and our school system was putting together a cooperative agreement between three neighboring communities where sixth-grade kids would come together for a one-week camping trip. There was a camp site about 40 minutes away that was set up perfectly for just such a group. There were cabins set up in little quadrants for separate male and female groups. There were trails, activity buildings, shelter houses, a cafeteria, and a giant meeting lodge. Campers would leave on a Monday morning from their respective schools and return to the school for parental pick up the following Saturday.
The idea had many assets:
It was an opportunity for neighboring community children to meet and get to know each other with the likelihood that someday, some of them may be in city government and have early familiarity and friendships established with the neighboring community that could be decades old before it ever was formalized.
It was a chance to be away from mom and dad for a week. It was a time to see how strong you were on your own. It was an opportunity to test yourself on how much of an adult you had become. It was so good for so many reasons that the program still runs strong today.
It was also a reminder to parents that they only get their kids for so many years and what the house would sound like one day when their kid leaves for college or for good. Everybody was to benefit from the program.
And so it was that we were all standing together in the elementary school courtyard with the smell of bus diesel fumes hanging heavy in the air. Our duffle bags and sleeping bags were being stuffed under the chortling yellow machines that would soon be loaded with campers singing merrily and choking back tears; for many, this was the first separation from parents since birth.
I had the good fortune and security of having my best buddy in my class and we had been like brothers since library school when we were three years old. We sat together quietly, observing the whole phenomenon and wondering which of the kids would crack under the pressure that this real separation would bring about.
In looking back now, I recall this very dynamic was the most talked about part of the trip. In fact, days one and two were filled with traumatic scenes from drama-queen kids that couldn’t stand being away from home. The pattern was easy to spot. It was one despondent kid sitting with their head down, ashamed they had to act like this in front of their peers but so dang lonely they just had to try to get a ride home from any teacher they thought might cave in. But the ranks were tight and the counselors and teachers didn’t break easily.
The morning breakfast often found these kids pouting and sniffing over their flap jacks but by noon they had accepted their fate and began to enjoy the ride. I’m betting those “tough love” sessions made differences in many of their lives then and today although they are not even aware of it. Hindsight has revealed many things to me over the years about the lessons occurring during that fateful week.
Lesson One: Nothing will prepare a sixth grader for seeing his teachers naked in the men’s shower for the first time. You go from this quiet, shy upbringing where you nervously attend elementary school and matriculate through the system until one day you are in the big sixth grade. You’ve been looking at sixth-grade teachers with apprehension the whole time you are in school because they are in charge of the big kids, the bold ones leaving for junior high so you have an image of respect. Suddenly, these same people come dangling past you and tell the boys to “keep the line moving” and you smile like you’re comfortable about it all but know you will never be the same or look at him the same. The damage had been done.
Lesson Two: Pack light. You will probably wear the same outfit most of the time you are there.
Lesson Three: Don’t think the relaxed atmosphere translates to relaxed rules. Teachers are still teachers. On more than one occasion, a few of my buddies got so comfortable around the old campfire they wound up telling a couple teachers of stuff we were “getting away with.” We didn’t get away with anything the next day.
Lesson Four: There are some things beyond your control; during those times just relax, enjoy the moment and go with it. Camp was like a mini-separation experience that did my heart and mind a lot of good. I was put there with my parent’s permission and resigned myself to the notion that if I hung in there long enough it would be a good time. That was immediately the case. My initial apprehensions disappeared and I got a greater appreciation for the outdoors, my friend-to-friend relationships, son-to-parent relationships, and student-to- teacher relationships. I could never replace the lessons learned during that fateful week.
For parents deliberating whether to cave in to reluctant kids saying, “But I don’t wanna go,” my advice is to ignore them. Be the parent and know better. Send them. It’s a time full of outstanding learning experiences. Make them tough it out. The benefits will outweigh any potential loss.