Monday, July 10, 2006

Some thoughts about camp...and also about knowing who you are


"Self Knowledge Brings Happiness"


Years ago I remember reading in People magazine about celebrities who were helping to run a pediatric AIDS program in memory of the late Elizabeth Glaser. One day each year Hollywood devoted a day to fun and games where sick kids were allowed to get their faces painted by Madonna or kids played dodgeball with Kevin Bacon. All in all...a good thing.

But it bugged me that the photos all featured famous people wearing baseball hats printed with the word "Hero" on it while the kid with AIDS went without. I mean...isn't that a little strange that the concept of heroism was, at the time, only applied to the rich moviestar who donated a few hours for photo ops...and not to the kid whose life had been severely compromised by a disease??

Someone must have tipped them off that the thing with the hats was in the poorest of taste because I haven't seen anyone wearing them lately. But the whole thing made me think about last week at cancer camp. It would be the understatement of the year to say that I've learned a lot about cancer in the last few years. I've also learned a lot about myself and it's not all good news.

More than once this week I've had to ask myself just whan in HELL I was doing there with kids who need a sensitive and warm/fuzzy person to teach them art/crafts. Who do I think I am? Granted, Mr. Half and I give a lot of our time to "causes", but we're no "do-gooders" and despite the way I vote, I can be as intolerant as anyone else. It took me years of folks hammering at me before I came aboard to be associated with this camp, and when I did it was only to fill the space as Arts & Crafts teacher. I had no desire then--or now--to be glued 24-7 to a cabin of kids. And I think I've done a good job. When I devise an activity or order the materials for it, I approach it like an artist, but once I'm with the kids I approach it like a teacher. I can honestly say that I've raised the bar in making the A&C program better than it's ever been. No more paper plates glued together with pinto beans inside to make a giant tambourine. B-O-R-I-N-G! That said, I must also admit that my methods don't completely take into account the many different kinds of kids who pass through the art building. That became obvious to me in the past few days and I'm not entirely happy about it.

In conversations with my middle sister where we're asked to categorize ourselves as being "justice-oriented" or "mercy-oriented" people, we've both had to admit that we both fall in with the former group. That's not to say that I don't get a lump in my throat when I see little bald kids slumped over in their wheelchairs. What it means is that I question how much a camper with asthma, leukemia, rampant excema and Down's Syndrome is going to get out of an hour in my class. Can I really count it as therapeutic or is it just babysitting? If it's just babysitting, then why am I there?

And because I question whether or not that kid is getting anything out of it, I wonder if my goals are being met. That leads me to ask myself if my personal goals are getting in the way of a "child-focused program"...which is something we're supposed to be. Being "justice-oriented" means that, cancer or not, I still get hacked off when kids waste materials or ask to be granted special favors. I sometimes can't tell the difference between a kid whose brain has been scrambled by umpteen rounds of chemo and a kid who would be a total ass even if he/she had never been compromised by something like cancer.

We, none of us, are heroes. The volunteers who show up summer after summer and toil equally hard at the helm of the camp's board are just trying to make a good thing out of a bad situation. We're teachers and firefighters and radio dj's and restaurant owners. Everyone of us has our limits. But I don't see the limits of others as well as I see my own. I can't decide if I'm supposed to constantly keep in mind the idea that these campers are cancer patients, or if I'm supposed to immerse them in an attitude of "normal" and treat them the way I should treat anyone else. One scenario demands that I have no expectations and the other requires me to have many. I think the answer is in the gray area and that's a place I have a hard time staying in...let alone locating.

So the whole "self-knowledge" thing is, according to the Chinese saying, supposed to bring happiness. For me, it often brings more self-doubt. The more I go to camp, the more I learn about others as well as myself. So when people ask me how camp went this summer, I have to pause. I think it went okay, but I can't tell if I'm supposed to use my own experiences as the template for a good time. Or if I'm supposed to remember the smile on the face of the kid clutching a shapeless, fist-sized sculpture made from four bar$(!!) of Sculpey polymer clay after I said to only use a tiny bit. You tell me.

16 Comments:

Blogger mothergoosemouse said...

I had to smile at your re-telling of the frustration you experienced. I'm very much justice-oriented (and a bit of a control freak besides), but I'd probably grin at the kids who aren't following directions or who are wasting materials and just hope that they are having a good time. I would have lowered my expectations from the beginning.

That's not to say that I am nearly so understanding with healthy kids who should know better, my own kids included. In fact, I know that I probably expect too much, and I routinely have to ratchet down my expectations.

Frankly, I think it's wonderful that you volunteer your time as you do. I don't necessarily think that anyone needs to label themselves as a hero (certainly not celebrities - and I'll leave it at that before I start a rant), but I definitely admire you. And better yet, I'd like to think that you've inspired me as well.

6:55 PM  
Blogger toyfoto said...

I can't presume to know anything about this, but I do understand that kids need boundaries, sick or healthy. To me there's nothing sadder that a kid who is miserable because he/she is given everything they want out of pitty.

8:27 PM  
Blogger LetterB said...

This is such a thoughtful post. So many people objectify sick kids, especially when talking about the charity experience. Often they are turned into soulless kitsch, like keane paintings. It's refreshing to hear about an experience working with sick kids that plumbs the real experience, inconvenient truths and all.

8:41 PM  
Blogger cameo said...

absolutely brilliant. i have foud myself in this exact mental spot many times before. i'm not a soft person. but sometimes i really wish i was.

self realiztion for me sometimes breeds self-doubt too. and that's such a hard place to be. do you shrug it off and honor yourself or do you attempt change?

after years of teaching, i do know this. you never know the impact you've made on a students life. what lesson will they take with them? will it be an off the cuff comment or something you set out for them to learn.

sometimes they surprise you and let you know. most the time they don't.

but what did you learn from them? as long as you learned something too, then the experience was perfect - self-doubt and all.

8:49 PM  
Blogger ~A~ said...

I can't respond to many of your questions but I can to this one; "What it means is that I question how much a camper with asthma, leukemia, rampant excema and Down's Syndrome is going to get out of an hour in my class."

You'd actually be surprised. Working with Girl Scouts for the last 5 years, I've learned that kids do not always give us an immediate return when we teach them a new skill. Sometimes it's taken a couple months or even a year to see the results of my time with the girls.

Meaning, that you may not see it after your hour with the kids, especially if you never work with them consistently, but some time down the road some one will see it.

So enjoy and remember the smiles you get now and forget about the waste of clay, because it's just clay.

9:30 PM  
Blogger R. Robyn said...

I would relate it to this scenario:

If a child is acting out to get attention, then it's probably because they need attention.

If a sick child seeks pity, or special favors, there is probably a reason behind it.

All in all though, kids are kids. All of them have special needs. But I don't think sick kids should have a blanket policy of special treatment, only as each unique situation requires.

11:42 PM  
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6:43 AM  
Blogger grvgirl said...

I think the most important part of these camps is that during the camp, and art classes in particular, these kids are able to forget that they are sick. For just a moment, however brief it may be, they can feel normal. I speak from experience because I am a 26 year old childhood cancer survivor. I remember the classes and camps and the looks of pity many of the instructors would give me- oh you poor thing- youre sick! But I also remember how great it felt to be around other people who were sick or those who treated me like a normal kid. In a world filled with radiation and IV tubes, what I craved most was normalcy. Im sure you provided these kids exactly what they needed.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Mignon said...

I really liked what toyfoto said. And knowing you a bit, it seems like in addition to your justice-oriented personality, you set extremely high expectations on yourself and those around you (I always have you in mind when I'm proofreading what I've written). There's no way you can check that quality at the door, but maybe you can find a different "thing" to expect. I guess that's really what you were saying anyway. How do you quantify the quality of the experience?

It's like trying to grade yourself and cancer-riddled kids on a feeling. That's a no-answer, no-win situation.

Good post... and now I'm going to check you out and become extremely jealous about your Typepad nirvana.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Did the children enjoy your class?
Did any of the children seem to advance with their skills? Were they able to focus upon listening to you and creating?

Flexibility and patience are your guides for the answers to your questions.

7:03 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

I question how much a camper with asthma, leukemia, rampant excema and Down's Syndrome is going to get out of an hour in my class.


Maybe, it's possible to teach or show different types of art to reach different types of students.

7:14 PM  
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