Photo: My two boys, living their best lives.
I showed up for my first day of camp a bit late, a bit nervous. I told my husband the night before that I knew I was over-prepared, but I was especially concerned about a reading that I had included in my packet from Wired for Story, which I knew would be particularly high-level reading for a 7th grader, if that’s what I had.
I was told last week that 11 students had signed up for my week-long creative writing intensive class at a local super-posh summer camp. I was shocked by the number. “They can range from rising 7th to rising 10th graders,” I was told. I knew that my concept wasn’t too hard to grasp, but the reading…
“This is what I trained for,” I said to my husband (but really, to myself). “I know how to differentiate. I’ll buddy kids up and help with the vocab. No big deal.”
The thing they teach you in any teacher education program, essentially, is “expect the unexpected.” We learn pedagogy and differentiation and psychology and stuff, but if I could sum up the thesis of my undergraduate teacher education program in a sentence or two, it would be, “every single human is different. You’ve got to teach them all somehow. So, expect the unexpected. Here are some tools to help you think critically in the field.” The graduate degree took it a step further: “Every human is different. All students are weighed down by history. Our history is particularly fucked. You’ve got to do your best to teach every student. Expect the unexpected. God’s speed and good luck. (Consider law school. You’ll get paid more when you graduate. Bring money.)”
I did that. I over-prepared. I expected the unexpected.
I didn’t expect 5 of my campers to be Chinese nationals with only a basic working knowledge of English.
You can only imagine my surprise when they came up and their chaperone (minder?) introduced each one to me. I did my best to learn their names. They laughed heartily and corrected me until I either mangled it in irreparable fashion or got it close enough enough to be passable. I did my best to explain what all we would be learning. They nodded with blank stares.
I did my best to keep an open mind. I grew hopeful as my other students arrived: a student from the UK with a financial status and education that would make even my richest friends blush. And three local students who seemed “regular” enough. (One of my students didn’t show.)
I took all of the students up to the shockingly beautiful library and began my lesson. It didn’t take long to realize that my 5 foreign students weren’t going to get terribly much out of the course. Notes were barely taken. Work time and encouragement only earned me blank stares. When given opportunity to branch off and work, one child broke out a sleep mask. Another, her math book. One decided to take a nap without the luxury of the sleep mask.
At the end of the day, their chaperone, who knew almost as much English as the students did, was able to convey the following: “Your class is just a little too hard. Can we get all the packets to preview in advance? Would it be possible for them to write for 20 minutes in the morning and then go play for the rest of the day?”
I explained that I couldn’t really give them a preview packet (I didn’t explain that this wasn’t possible because I was making each packet nightly). I explained that this is a writing class… designed for students who like to write and want to learn how to expand their skills over a week. She looked at me like I was crazy, skulked off and spoke to the students.
I was… disheartened. That’s a good word. Heartbroken is probably better. I’m a trained teacher after all. There are ways to fail students. But Lordy, I don’t know Mandarin… this is a limitation that’s severe and difficult to overcome… certainly impossible to overcome within a week.
It took until Wednesday to get those students reassigned to other portions of the camp. One stayed with me for the better part of 3 miserable days. It was explained to me that the parents of these students, who were in China, had enrolled them into the class because they knew it would be “academic” and a good resume boost. One set of parents was adamant their child stay in the class, even though she was miserable, couldn’t understand my content, and decided to simply tune out everything.
“A lot of kids get enrolled in the academic classes and they don’t want to be there,” I was told. It’s a well known fact, it would seem. “You know how it is: they think this will get their kid into a great college, or a good private school here in America.”
On Monday, hungry and frustrated, I walked into the lovely cafeteria where hot lunch is served to the campers every day and plopped down in a chair at a table with my seemingly miserable students. I really thought I’d made the worst decision ever by signing up to teach at camp. But then I saw Minor, who waved to me from the next table over. He was playing around and laughing with his new-found friends. Major came in right after. He had been reunited with two friends from our preschool days, who I was delighted to see. “This place is the best,” he said as he went to the line to go get pasta and salad.
This week, my boys practiced archery, went canoeing, got a swim lesson every day, they cooked, they played games, they built in woodshop, they learned songs, they did theater… they even spent two early evenings back in the pool with friends they’ve known and gotten to know over the past few summers. It’s intimate and safe and fun… and they did it in front of the backdrop of a gorgeous, manicured, prestigious New England private school, a place where they have spent a lot of time and played with friends, but never like this. Suddenly, this school feels like home to them. They started walking around like they owned the place on Wednesday morning. People know them by name. They know where everything is. And they spent time with counselors of all sorts of colors and backgrounds (there were plenty of bi-racial kids there, a few Black kids, lots of Asian American kids… it was a good mix, and there were a lot of counselors of color!) They had the time of their lives. They can’t believe they get to do it again next week and the week after.
And neither can I.
And while I was really, really frustrated with the situation in the beginning of the week, by the time I got to Wednesday, I completely understood.
I stood on the quad, looked around, and really thought about it. Who wouldn’t do anything to give their child this awesome opportunity? Even for just one week. Some parent put their child on a plane to fly half a world away, to be with a stranger who kept them in a hotel with a bunch of other kids, whose job it was to get that child on a bus to and from this camp every day. Just for a taste of it. Not just of an American life or an American education, but of something in particular. A particular American life. And as I experienced this camps campus, really thinking about it all, I reflected on it and compared it with what I knew. I had a great K-12 experience, I attended a state-of-the-art brand new public high school. I’ve seen and done and been… I haven’t lived an underprivileged existence by any means. And yet, I experienced nothing like this, and couldn’t have imagined it at the time when I was in high school.
I get it. I get it so much that I endured the week just to see my children full of the deepest joy while they’ve been immersed in it. I’ll do it next week and the week after, no matter what annoyances may arise. And if they’ll have me, I’ll do it again next year. I’ll be sore, I’ll be exhausted, I’ll even be annoyed, just to put this opportunity in front of them. Just to give them the taste of this. I knew when I landed this job over the winter that I’d opened up something amazing for the boys. Yet, even then, I had no idea. Now I do, and this is just camp.
Parenthood is many, many things. We all do incredibly counter-intuitive, even stupid things on behalf of these precious children we’ve made. We dream and set our bodies to motion to make those dreams possible. I’ve never quite understood the lengths I’d go for these two boys and these futures I want for them until I’ve started the sprint.
And that brings me back to the students I encountered on Monday. Half a world away from home, just a nervous as I was, probably scared, though maybe exhilarated by the adventure of it all. There was a Mom and/or a Dad half a world a way who had made a choice, once that I didn’t think I would have made if I were in their position. But now, a week on… having seen what I’ve seen… I can’t say that for sure. Probably not, but… I don’t know. You don’t know the lengths that you’ll go for your children until the sprint gets started and the goal is where it is. And now that I know what my boys are really competing with? Lord. Some things can’t be unseen.
It’s a hot night in Massachusetts. It’s been a hot week. My tomatoes love it. My electric bill, however, is spiking. I’m one exhausted mama. Thanks for your patience with me this week. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be back to normal next week. I will post as I can until camp is over.
But I came here to make wishes: I wish you a moment of walking a mile in another man’s shoes. It’s hard, but try. You’ll learn how to be more human. That’s never a bad thing. I wish you time to rest your body and your mind.
Which reminds me: if you are a woman who raises humans and works a full time job that isn’t “flexible” and stuff–I wish you everything: every thank you, every hug, every good thing, every wonderful thing. This is hard work. I feel like I went through my first year of teaching all over again (hard enough) but with the extra challenge of shepherding humans? Mission Impossible every morning! To the Working Moms, the ones who really do do it all… God bless you, in all seriousness. I can’t wait to call my Mom on Sunday and say thank you from the bottom of my heart and with a sincerity I couldn’t fully appreciate until this moment. And when I visit Grandy’s grave over Christmas, I’ll have one more thing to cry over and say thank you for… because she did it with four kids. I don’t know how. I think I learned this week that I’m not nearly as strong or as capable as either Mom or Grandy. I barely survived this week and my house absolutely didn’t survive it. I am in awe of all working moms. Every single one of you.
I’ve… taken up a lot of the internet. But I refuse to get off without reminding you that you are beloved. There are people in this world who love you beyond measure because you do the things that make this world go ’round. By simply walking through the world and being your best self, you serve as a model and a light for others. Do what you were born to do: shining brightly against a dark world. Give others permission to be beloved and wonderful and bright as well.
Until the next time I see you, which may not be until next Friday, but I sincerely hope before… take care.