As soon as I discovered my school was taking a three-day camping field trip, I signed up as chaperone.
Never mind that I knew very few of the kids attending and that I hadn’t been a cabin counselor in at least 15 years. This was camp.
The worst day of camp is always better than the best day of school, and I took it as my mission to instill this value into my very energetic group of 11- and 12-year-olds.
On Monday, as we ventured further from the obnoxious noise and unceasing hyperactivity of the city, I watched students decompress, some almost literally. They had never been to camp before, let alone down a two-lane highway or past vast, golden autumn fields of corn and soybeans awaiting harvest.
Instead of trying to find a fight to pick about a trivial matter, they grew curious about this world, an alternative universe to the only one most of them knew, the concrete and asphalt some had never escaped.
“Why does that horse have spots?” (Because it’s a cow.)
“Is that a garage for a rocket ship?” (No, it’s a silo.)
“What’s a silo?” (A place where grain, like corn, is stored.)
“Where does the corn come from? I don’t see any stores.” (These fields on both sides of us are cornfields.)
“That’s what corn looks like?” (Yes.)
“Why are there so many dead people in that cemetery?”
“Do kids in the country have to go to school?”
“Are we still in Ohio, because I haven’t seen a McDonald’s in forever.”
(Some questions can’t be answered, only acknowledged.)
These past three days have taught me several lessons I would never have learned between the school walls.
I witnessed the transformation of a witty, intelligent seventh-grader from a mousy, shadow-fearing (her own) girl to a young lady capable of inspiring leadership in her cabin.
I observed two friends who couldn’t be separated branch into two unique, strong girls whose mediation skills broke cliques into people.
And my heart swelled with the thrill only a teacher can appreciate when my ragtag group of “insects” outwitted the wisest and more popular “owls” when they returned from an all-camp game losing nary a person and bursting with pride–an accomplishment not often achieved by this group on an individual basis.
Most of all, I loved the chance to get to know the kids on their level–as kids. Not as students, not as names on a roster or another IEP that needed to be filled out, but those perfectly imperfect little creatures we so desperately want the best for.
I must admit that as I watched some of them board the bus ahead of me that frosty morning in the school parking lot, not all my thoughts were pleasant and positive.
I saw the kid that I argued with (for wearing a hat in the cafeteria), another young man I’ve sent to the office with discipline referrals, a notorious drama queen (who cries on-cue), and a chatterbox incapable of keeping silent for more than two minutes.
But upon our return, I watched in wonder as those same kids came rushing off the bus to help their camp mates unload luggage, discuss how to reduce food waste in our cafeteria, and promise new friends they would meet at lunch, no matter what their non-camping friends said.
It’s impossible to know how many of these students will sign up next year for a return trip, but for the moment I imagine many of them are falling asleep, minds echoing with the residual chirp of crickets and their hearts full of that unique brand of happiness that comes only from a meaningful camp experience.
In the morning, they head back to their desks, lockers, and lives, but right now, I’m hoping that they’ve come to see that the worst day of camp is better than the best day at school.
Beth Morrow is an author, educator and co-program director for Camp Hamwi, a residential camp for teens with diabetes. She firmly believes that camp can change the life of every child. She can be reached at email@example.com.