This story will publish in the Press Democrat on July 27.
Summer camp is a wonderful introduction for children to the great outdoors. They get to take a break from the parental units, make new friends, learn new skills, and lay out the best of intentions for the lanyard they’ll spend the whole week creating.
But for a lot of kids, camp is a traumatic experience — especially when it comes to making friends.
My daughter, DQ, has gone to camp much longer than my son, Taz. As a result, she’s made a lot of friends. Taz, on the other hand is still relatively new to the experience. In the weeks before camp, I gave Taz encouragement that he’d meet many boys his own age there. DQ was already on the mission, taking down the names of all her friends’ little brothers so she could introduce them to Taz. By the time camp came, we knew of at least three other boys who seemed like a good fit. But Taz still had a few nervous butterflies as we made our way toward the mosquito-infested forest campground.
The benefit of that first day, however, is that many of the kids are on the same footing. While some campers come back summer after summer and see the same friends they’ve kept in touch with all year long, many kids are brand new and know no one. Several campers stood back from the activities, staying within the vicinity of their parents rather than venturing out into the unknown. When their parents hugged them goodbye, the kids were left to wander around aimlessly, unsure how to fit in.
One boy in particular looked a bit lost as he traveled alone in the crowd of kids. At the beginning of the camp day, the first glimpse everyone got of “Ben” was when his name was called to join his tribe. He made his way from the benches, but his feet got jumbled underneath him. In front of the whole camp, Ben took a hard fall into the dirt. Luckily no one laughed, but the experience was humiliating for a 10-year-old boy to suffer in front of a bunch of strangers. He fought off the persistent tears, but finally gave in while his dad was still there. Later, with his dad gone, he walked about with red-rimmed eyes and his shirt covering part of his face to hide the fact that he was still crying.
Taz, in the meantime, had found a familiar face. A boy he went to school with was at camp for the first time. While the two boys didn’t get along very well at school, here they were suddenly the best of friends. The two of them were immersed in a hardcore game of foosball with a pinecone for the ball. I couldn’t help but notice that Ben was circling the table, interested in what the boys were doing but unsure how to join in. The mom in me felt compelled to get involved.
“Taz,” I said, beckoning him at an opportune moment, “see that kid over there? I think he needs a friend just as bad as you did. Do you think you can ask him to join you?” Taz gave me a pained look.
“I don’t know, Mom,” he said. “What if I did it later tonight?”
“It will be too late,” I said. “I’m afraid he’s going to try and go home.” Taz gave me a half-hearted promise that he’d try, and then went back to the table to play.
“I got a ball, so I get first dibs at playing,” another kid said, coming up to Taz and his school friend. Both boys made groans of how unfair that was, but let him take over on one of side of the table. Meanwhile, Ben was getting a little braver and venturing closer. He finally made a bold move and sat right next to where they were playing foosball. Taz glanced over at Ben.
“I got it,” Taz exclaimed. “You and you are a team,” he said, pointing to Ben and his school friend. “And he and I will be a team,” pointing at the kid with the ball. Just like that, they became a group of four pals. Looking around I could see groups forming all over camp, the faces of strangers starting to look a lot more like friends.
The unfamiliar can be scary, whether you’re 11 years old, 34, or 48 — whatever age you are. All anyone wants is a sense of familiarity when surrounded by the unknown. Sometimes all it takes is one kind gesture for the unknown to become something a little friendlier.
And sometimes, we have to make that first step.