Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Leaving your kid in the woods (a.k.a Summer Camp)

At seven and a half, Ben has now aged out of the familiar, comfortable, low-maintenance options for summer camp he's enjoyed since preschool.

So this year, like most other working parents in our area, I researched the hundreds of different nearby day camps, read parent recommendations online, compiled - I kid you not - a spreadsheet of options by week, sent in my forms and crossed my fingers that we'd be okay.

Ben is an in-between kind of kid when it comes to summer camps. In the past, we haven't enrolled him in summer school through his special education program or camps designed specifically for kids with special needs. But we can't simply drop him off at a local rec center and expect things to go well.

We're starting our summer with a couple weeks at a nearby outdoor science camp with rave reviews and a reputation for a quirk-friendly environment.


As the first day approached, I tried to prepare Ben, to let him know what to expect. He was nonplussed. "I know, I know..." he told me, exasperated, using his latest tactic to end conversations.

He happily got in the car the first day. No sign of anxiety or reservation. He walked down the path to the clearing where the campers gather in their groups.

His group's counselor was a very nice college student who mentioned she likes to paint rocks.

Now, I should admit that I've developed a bias against nice, quiet, artistic young teachers over the years. They don't tend to make an impression with Ben. He responds better to someone funny or dramatic or a little in-your-face. Plus, she hadn't read the tip sheet we sent with our forms: the "instruction manual" for Ben we prepare for any new teacher. I started to get worried.

None of the kids in his group were particularly gregarious or outgoing. But they were the normal kind of kids, who, when an adult says sit on the bench and color your name tag with a marker, they sit on a bench and color their name tag with a marker.

Ben, not being that normal kind of kid, roamed around the clearing, silently picked at pieces of bark, and investigated the details of a chain link fence. He wasn't distressed, but also not enthusiastic.

"Why don't you go sit with your group and make a new friend?" I suggested.

"I can't. I can't make a friend." He didn't sound discouraged or sad or lacking self-esteem. He said it as if he was simply stating a fact.

"Do you think you're going to be okay?" I asked, more for me than for him.

"Yup." he replied stoically.

I decided it was time to go. He didn't protest, but as I walked back down the path, he ran after me. "Promise you'll pick me up?" he asked.

Then he watched me go with his hand raised in a somber goodbye, a moment I knew he was re-enacting from the final scene of Disney's Pocahontas, where the brave Indian maid watches from a cliff as John Smith's ship returns to England.

And then I got in the car and cried because I had just left my kid in the woods with a bunch of people neither of us had ever seen before.

I tried to keep busy and ignore the gnawing, burning feeling in my stomach. I clutched my phone like a talisman all day, waiting for the call where the director nervously and euphemistically tells me that "he's been having some trouble," and that I "might want to come and get him."

The call never came, and eventually it was time to pick him up.

He ran up the path to greet me. "Camp! Was! Great!"

The nice, rock-painting counselor agreed he'd had a good day. Maybe she didn't need the tip sheet after all.

"Did you make any new friends?"


"What are their names?"

"I don't remember. Never mind that. Let's pretend we're in an airplane and..."

And on the way to the car, he settled into the comforting mode of improvised storytelling and recitation. His version of Miller Time.

Later, I asked him why he never opened his lunch box.

"I'm sorry I didn't eat lunch, but I was too bored."

"Bored? Do you mean you were too nervous to eat lunch?"


Camp was great. He was bored. He was nervous. He couldn't make a friend. He did make a friend.

It's all true. It's possible for him to be okay being dropped off in an unfamiliar setting, for him to not like it, but to do it anyway.

There's room for all of these things to exist at once, perhaps because his psyche is spacious enough to hold these contradictions comfortably, even when mine is not.

Here's hoping your summer is spacious enough to hold lots of things at once.

Camp flyer.jpg
And here I thought it had something to do with having hair and bearing live young.


Rethink Autism said...

That's such a sweet story. Sounds like he was surprised by how much he liked camp.

Tim said...

What th--? Ben's cousins clearly learned that Mammals swim on Wednesdays!
What kind of furshlugginer taxonomy is this camp purporting to teach?!?

hleighh said...

Hi, I followed some links from your Twitter profile after the recent exchange with thehighsign, and just wanted to say I really enjoyed this post ... my daughter's a couple years older, and we have a lot of daycamp first days in our history. Bored and nervous and great and fun?! Does not compute for my grownup mind! But then I think a little more and agree that yes, most first days are that kind of mix. Also that image of "wandering around the edge of the circle picking up sticks" was so familiar.