Setting the Scene:
I have ten kids this week, ranging from 9 years to 12 years old. I don’t have an assistant, so I’m on my own. This makes it somewhat complicated to get bathroom breaks, but so far is working out just fine. Two of the kids are siblings, and another one is on adderal (used to treat ADD, ADHD, and depression, but I don’t know specifically what it’s for with this kid). They’re all good kids.
The kids were all great. My only frustration was with the other instructors and assistants for the week. All of them are men except for one assistant and the director, and none of them seemed to understand why it was a problem that all of our stories for the week feature strong male protagonists and only men had told stories for the week. Even after we had an explicit conversation about this on Wednesday, Thursday morning came around and the men were all voting for a male instructor to tell the story of the Peacemaker, which is a great story, but includes only men with the exception of one woman who is an innkeeper and doesn’t do anything spectacular. I had to get kind of pushy in order to insist that we at least needed a woman to tell a story. We finally came around to both the female assistant and the director telling a personal story rather than one of our mythological ones. But still all the men seemed non-plussed about why I was getting so uppity about it. It’s definitley not universal, but I think the field of wilderness education tends to be a little behind the times in terms of female equality and awareness of male privilege.
Definitely today was the biggest apple, though it started out looking like quite an onion. After our large group of 45 kids or so broke up into smaller clans to head out into the woods for the day, one of my kids stayed behind sitting in the big meadow while the rest of us headed out to get our water bottles refilled and collect our backpacks. This week’s camp director, Amara, stayed behind to find out what was up with him. He told her that he didn’t have any friends here and he was really sad because people weren’t being nice to him. She passed that on to me and suggested that she would simply move him to another group. He’s one of the younger ones in my group, so would possibly fit in better with the next younger clan. After spending three days with this group, I had seen that they were actually extraordinarily good at being supportive. While it does often happen that one kid gets ostracized from the group because the others decide they just don’t like him, I didn’t think that had happened in this case. The kid in question is a really quiet kid, tends to get lost in the excitement, and I was pretty sure that they had no idea he felt left out. I told Amara that I’d rather risk having a talk about it within my group. It’s a risk, there always being the possibility that the left out person feels even more left out after the conversation. I told Amara that I would ask the kid (I’ll call him J) if he felt up for having that conversation. He said he was, and I told him that was very brave. He asked for some tissue and a couple minutes to get himself together and then the rest of the group would come over and we would talk.
I spent a few minutes with the rest of the group. I didn’t tell them what the problem was, since I wanted J to have a chance to speak for himself. I just told them that one of our clan members wasn’t feeling very supported and he was taking a few minutes to decide what he wanted to say and then we were going to have a talk about it. When J was ready, we circled up and I asked J if he would say to the group what he had said to me. He said, “I don’t like the way you all treat me, and I think you should treat me better.” I asked him if he could give any specific examples and he said he couldn’t. I was worried that we might not be able to get anywhere with that, but one of the students starting asking really good questions. “Do you feel left out?” she asked, “Or do you feel like we are being mean to you?” She asked it completely matter-of-fact, not defensive at all. He explained that he just felt left out. And what followed just made my heart melt. First, I asked the whole group to just quickly do a show of hands if they had ever felt this way themselves. All of them raised their hands, and totally empathized right from the start. All the kids in the group were so amazingly good about verbalizing their thoughts about how J is totally part of the group (one girl said, “J you’re a really cool kid, you can participate in whatever we’re doing whenever you want.” and another said, “Of course you can do whatever we’re doing. We’re all on the same team.”) I pointed out to them that some people really need to be specifically invited in order to feel comfortable; I even explained that I’m one of those people. After a few minutes conversation, we all came to an agreement that the whole group would make it a point to invite J more often to participate in whatever they were doing, and J would try his best to let people know if he wanted to participate but wasn’t sure if he was invited. And then, even more amazing than the fact that this group of kids was able to have the conversation, they actually did it! Even the kid who is most focussed on his own agenda and talking over everyone else all the time made it a point to holler, “Come on J!” every time he went running off down the trail. All the kids made it a point to sit next to him at lunch, or to walk next to him across the field and ask about where he was going fishing after camp (which he was really excited about), and even created a special job for him when we were building a shelter and he hurt his knee and couldn’t run around to collect materials. It was awesome.
And there were so many times the rest of the day that I had to hide my chuckles. J is obviously a kid who doesn’t get invited to play very much. He’s not particularly coordinated, doesn’t really get rough-housing, and doesn’t pick up on a lot of social protocol. So at some point, there were a group of kids and one of them had a ball, like a tennis ball or something. Somehow, they created some sort of keep-away game with the ball (I love how kids are always creating spontaneous games), so one kid had the ball and all the
others were chasing him and tackling him to try to get the ball. A kid standing next to J saw what was going on and took off across the field to joint the pursuit. “Come on J!” he hollered as he ran. J took off running all knock-kneed and joyful across the field. When he caught up to the kid with the ball, already weighted down with three or four people trying to pry the ball away from him, J stops abruptly not quite knowing what to do. He understands the overall point of the game, which is just to tackle people and rough-house around. But he doesn’t quite get the pretend-point of the game, which is to get the ball. So he pauses for a second, and then just throws his arms around the person nearest him and starts wrestling them to the ground. Fortunately, in the melee, this didn’t really stand out to anyone involved as the whole tangled knot of 6 or 7 kids went down in a pile of flailing legs and laughter.