Camp is unusual

My newest T-shirt is available. I drew this double-irised ball player a long time ago when I still lived in Asheville. Since moving to camp, my sketchbooks are packed away somewhere in my dad’s basement. I’ll find ‘em one day and scan all kinds of great images for all of you to wear.

So camp is going kind of crazy. Kids are strange. I keep forgetting that I work with a certain stripe of kids; those with behavioral disorders. They don’t represent every teenager out there. Lately, for weeks, kids have been fleeing their campsites for other campsites at night while we chiefs are asleep. We’ve had to stay up all night, or wake very frequently just to make sure our kids are still accounted for. It’s very problematic when kids run off. At night, there is no light, they don’t have proper boots (we collect boots at night to prevent running away. A lot of good it does), they can’t really see where they’re going, so the risk of injury and getting lost increase alarmingly.

Several campers in my group have been running off. One camper in particular, however, has decided he’s not going to “follow into the negativity,” and has been working hard to do well at camp. He’s been a badly needed infusion of positivity in my group, my life, my job. I really appreciate him. The other day, while my group was wallowing in low morale, low motivation and tons of loafing around, this kid sat on our meeting logs with me and wrote a poem to his mom. He asked my help creating the verses. I tried my best not to write the poem for him but help him come up with phrases that matched the rhyme scheme and meter he’d established, and conveyed the sentiments he wished to express.

It was a great moment. The poem was choppy and awkward, riddled with spelling errors, but very sweet and sincere. He asked if I’d draw a heart below the poem. I did. He asked if I’d add a banner. I did. He asked if I’d draw wings on the heart. I did. He asked for an arrow through the heart. I obliged. Then he wrote on the banner “Love that will Never Break.” I almost cried (understand, I was also very sleep deprived at the time. I’m no Sally Struthers). I was like “wow.” These kids are humans after all. Forgive the image. I doodled it on a café napkin just now and took a phone pic. The original was much nicer.

I mean, I never doubted the humanity of my campers. Their antics confirm it, actually. But it’s rare that I see the loving side of my campers’ humanity. They’re so busy playing hard and acting macho that such sensitivity rarely surfaces. Campers miss their families terribly. This kid in particular writes his mom nearly every day. She is his incentive to complete his camp program successfully and return home. When campers exhibit “maladaptive” behaviors, it sets them back. When they work hard to overcome their impulses and stay consistent with helpful behaviors, their camp stays shorten. They go back home either on time or early.

With so many of my guys acting crazy and going ape, you can bet I’ll dump as much of my attention and support into kids like this one who stays in bounds, supports his chiefs and his group, is funny, kind and considerate. He’s got a way with words, this one. Nearly everything out of his mouth is quotable. I’ve suggested he be a radio talk show host or an actor. When kids come from rough backgrounds where the only industry they can conceive of is drug sales and gang crimes, few of them realize what natural potential they possess for great and interesting occupations. I try to help them realize all their natural talents and skills and brainstorm which industries best suit them.

As this camper got down for the night, I helped him address his envelope to his mom. I tucked in the bug nets for his tent partners, made sure water bottles were filled, collected boots. I noticed he was still sitting up and scratching away at a notebook page. As I approached to encourage him to get to sleep, he tore the page out and handed it to me. He asked “do you like my robot? I drew it for you.” I was taken aback. I loved it. I want to put it on a T shirt for him. I have to think of a creative way around having to do the same for all my other campers who’ll cry “unfair” at such a gesture. Oh well.

Lately I’ve been thinking of quitting camp ‘cause of all the chaos and the lack of sleep I have as a result. I can’t leave my guys though. Some of them are working hard and have come to depend on me. They tell me their secrets and ask my advice. I can’t just up and quit and make them have to learn to trust a stranger or whomever might replace me. It’s tough. Whenever I return to camp, there’s a sharp block of anxiety in my gut. I know I’ll have another five days of getting cursed to my face, kids breaking rules they’ve known for months, serving the often very divergent needs of so many kids at once, and, of course, sleeping 3 to 4 hours a night. The work is the hardest I’ve ever done in my life. I want to get back to art. I spent time in a comic book shop today chatting with the clerk about X-Men and various illustrators for about an hour. I miss my old life. But I’ve got this one now. I’ve been at it for 6 months. I can’t quit yet.