I strolled onto the sun scorched parade ground at camp wearing a banana yellow poncho and sunglasses, with a crown of Christmas tinsel wrapped around my head. It was 93 degrees out that day, and we were about to have the water fight of the decade. Somehow, this would become an ideal allegory for much of my career in youth work afterward.
Freshman year of college was abysmal for me. It was 1993 and 1994. Constantly feeling a sense of confusion and being overwhelmed, as a first generation college student I struggled to make sense of the experience. I didn’t understand where I was at, what the purpose was, whether I belonged and how to pay for it. Of all those questions, the last one was the worst. After being unable to pay tuition at the small college where I thrived but couldn’t keep going, I started over at a different one only to be overwhelmed by the size and process of attending classes with 45,000 other students. Fish. Out. Of. Water.
I grew up entrenched in nature. While I spent my teens living in the middle of a city and far away from “deep nature,” my dad made sure I camped monthly since I was 12. Even before that, my dad encouraged me to be outside and took me on adventures. When we first moved to the Omaha area and were living in the Rainbow Motel off Highway 375, he took me to Fontenelle Forest, a nature preserve along the Missouri River. We’d sneak in through the barbed wire fence surrounding the place, then meander along trails, down hillsides and short cliffs, and into the river bottoms, swamps and wetlands along the riverside. Staying there for hours at a time, he’d point out deer, rabbits and coyotes, eagles and red tail hawks, and everything he saw with his seasoned hunting eyes. By the time I graduated from high school, I was an eagle scout who’d spent months away from home at scout camps teaching nature.
Before winter was over freshman year, I’d signed on to leave the city where I went to college and join the staff of a YMCA summer camp in southeast Nebraska. Surrounded by an oak forest snuggled up against the Platte River banks, mostly white children and youth from middle class homes were sequestered at the camp for a week of residential living. Sleeping overnight in spartan cabins, campers slept stacked in bunks, each fretting that lightning bugs and junebugs and daddy long legs were all trying to break in to eat them up. They participated in swimming, horse riding, craft making, archery, and all the other traditional summer camp curriculum.
The staff looked a lot like the campers. Almost everyone was white and on summer break from some local college. We only shared what we wanted to, and because of that we didn’t know a lot about everyone. Encouraged to take pseudonyms to curtail campers’ attachments, I was called Mister Jones all summer long. Other staff had nicknames like Smiley and Lola, and as far as I knew, everyone stayed an arms’ length away from campers’ real stories, too. Among the staff, one person shared a tragic backstory; another was a cowboy-type from western Nebraska; another played college volleyball; another was a deep water scuba diver. I was simply the nature director, and few people knew that I’d come from North Omaha.
For nine weeks that summer, my job was to use the props in the little nature shack to keep the attention of small groups for an hour at a time, every day, all summer long. Of course, I went a little overboard in my attempts. My classes surely included the typical lifting and petting the taxidermy birds and varmints; flipping through dated charts and old books; and overall, just trying to make sense of all the crap left there by generations before me. But my activities also included mud hikes down freshly soaked creek beds cutting through the camp; building a “snail sanctuary” made of moss and sticks in the daylong shade around the little nature shack in the woods; and singing goofy, made-up nature songs that no young person wanted to be seen singing outside the context of my nature classes. That part of the job was a riot.
Most things about the camp were typical and traditional. The camp director was astutely aware of the need for drama and wove it throughout the days. Every night we had a closing reflection time with a cabin, sharing our highs and lows and thinking aloud about what we learned from the day we just had. Every week, closing night at camp was a water works of tear-jerking storytelling and knee-slapping jokes, skits and songs. All of that was performed by staff and campers in front of parents and camp alumni, all of whom were strategically invited to see the value and power of camp.
Once a week, when it was my turn to facilitate the closing reflection time, I would march my cabin to the nature shack and welcome them in, without allowing flashlights during the short hike along a wide trail in the woods. Walking into the shack, eight campers would line either side of my teaching table, which had one fat candle in the middle. Striking a box of wooden matches very slowly, I milked the entire scene for effect. I told a story about a kid who suffered discrimination when he was young, and after learning how to fight for justice from his father, he grew up to become a minister and continued fighting for justice when he was a parent, a preacher and a leader. Alluding to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s story the whole time, I would end the short session by playing a song for them from my boombox, which was cued up to U2’s song, MLK.
However, there were problems with my camp experience that undercut my experience there. For as much as I fit in, I was sticking out the whole time.
That summer my parents divorced after 20 years together. Having gone through hell together, living apart was what was happening now. My brain didn’t know how to deal with that, so I just kept trucking on, pretending nothing was happening. When I signed up for camp, I was distinctly aware that I had no money and no plans for what happened after camp. My mother offered to rent me the bedroom I lived in for the prior eight years, so I kept that idea in mind. With the chaos happening at home though, I went off to rest at this camp in forest for the summer.
When I got to camp, I was confronted again with a foggy sense of separation and difference. I had faced it just the previous fall when I started attending a small, vastly white, vastly middle- and upper-class college. I had no idea why students looked so damn clean when they went off to class, and decided the overarching purpose of the place must have been to create drones to run the world. Mostly apolitical as a youth, I did carry the innate awareness of injustice typical of so many young people from low-income, disenfranchised backgrounds. I knew what was right and wrong, and the college I went to didn’t seem right.
This camp didn’t seem right either. Today, I know that the children and youth there were simply different than me, with different customs, traditions, culture and affects from what I was conditioned to. But then, those differences offended the very core of my being. Wearing new clothes to summer camp, demanding things of adults and routinely dismissing manners was just the edge of the swords these campers wielded. The brute force of their existences seemed to be apathetic or indifferent attitudes towards their privileges, along with a crass entitlement toward the creature comforts. These bothered me most. I couldn’t make sense of the attitudes and actions that seemed so foreign to me, so I condemned them in my own head.
The staff I was part of, those people I worked with, felt the same way to me. I didn’t understand the long-timers, those 18- to 25-year-old young adults who attended camp there and had a love for the place brimming from their eager smiles and determined actions. I didn’t get them. I also didn’t understand the “old pros,” the 25-plus year-olds who worked at other camps, worked in other kid spaces, and came to this job in sequence of the rest of their careers. All of them seemed comfortable with the young people we were working with, and none of them appeared indifferent to anyone; they all cared so much!
I was angry about the entitlement and differences. My self-imposed isolation was frustrated by a seeming indifference to my suffering by everyone around me. So much was conspiring in my life at that moment, and in an environment so distinctly different from where I’d known, I had no idea how to relate to my charges, or to my peers. I also had no idea of how to rectify the changes in my world outside camp with the world at camp. Ultimately, I was scared.
All of this boiled over with just two weeks left at camp. All summer long, I’d been cracking racial jokes and repeating the “your mama” insults I grew up with in North Omaha. I guess I was trying to get comfortable and bring people to the level I was used to playing on; but apparently, I stood on an uneven playing field.
By the end of the summer, my inherent racism as a white person became grossly entwined in my attempts to be witty.
One evening on the long walk to the end-of-session campfire, I was slowly moving along in a line of campers with staff at the end. In those Nebraska nights of flickering lightning bugs, cicadas squealing and frogs croaking, it was a camp tradition to walk in silence once we got into the campfire space. Every week, I used that walk to decompress, a chance to crack wise and relieve some of the tension of the coming campfire theatrics I mentioned earlier. That night, which was just two weeks before the end of summer, I made a joke to a fellow staff member who wasn’t amused by my antics. “Just go to the back of the line and leave us alone,” they commanded. Without thinking, I replied, “Isn’t that how it is, always sending us to the back of the bus?” When they rightly scoffed and became visually upset, I quickly apologized.
The next morning I was called into the camp director’s office before breakfast. Knowing that I was going to face the music for my ignorant comment, I walked into the small command center with the director and his number two. Scowling and tersely, it was explained to me that staff had been complaining all summer long about me in a variety of ways: I made inappropriate jokes, I didn’t respect their judgment about things, and I was stand-offish. I was told that I was being racist against white people. I was given the choice of leaving immediately, or finishing the summer in a diminished role.
I apologized to the camp leaders, offered to apologize to the other staff person again, and took their offer to stay. When the other staff person came into the office, I stated plainly that I was deeply ashamed of hurting them, and embarrassed by what I’d said. They told me that after growing up as a mixed race person and trying hard to The next two weeks were slower and more tedious than any other, and I was ready to leave when it was done.
I stayed inspired. Focusing on the task at hand, I was determined to make campers experiences’ in my classes different from everything else at camp. In those last few weeks, I made sure campers got their hands and clothes dirty every time they came to the nature shack, especially after I was told not to take campers on any more creek bed hikes. Apparently, parents complained because the Nebraska clay wouldn’t wash out of their kids’ clothes. I was defiantly proud of that rebelliousness.
Something in me changed after that though. Rather than continuing to take any youth work job anywhere with any young people for any reason, I was newly determined to work specifically with low-income youth and youth of color. Not quite understanding what I was onto yet, I started looking for jobs that were empowering and inspiring for the youth who were in them.
Feeling squashed in my own spirit was hard, especially when my struggles were misunderstood by me and the people I worked for. Coming from the disenfranchised background I did, including the homelessness and addiction and depression and PTSD coursing through my familial veins, it’s a wonder to me that I made it into this job in the first place. When I was interviewed, I wanted to impart my passionate perspective to the program director more than anything. Without disclosing any of my personal experience, I let that person know that I cared deeply about young people, and was committed to engaging them in nature, much as I had been as a child. Admiring my conflated memories of him, I envisioned myself as a nature guide the way my dad had been, gently moving young people along a pathway to become nature lovers by creating mini-epic hikes and activities to spark their imaginations and enflame their hearts. It was an audacious idea, and I was bold enough to believe it even after I’d failed my fellow camp staff so badly.
It was the last day of that summer camp as I stood in that banana yellow poncho and sunglasses, my crown of Christmas tinsel and beads of sweat collecting in my unkempt long hair. The weeks struggled past me, and this water fight was awesome. Despite the strife of the previous weeks along with the mixture of guilt and struggle left in my heart, I was having a blast. Playing the role of a sun god, the 200-plus campers had a moment of tag teaming me to put the sun out with a hose and buckets of water. The staff ganged up on me too, and suddenly I stood wide open to a torrent of forgiveness and encouragement. When campers left that week, nobody knew what I’d been through that summer. I wasn’t sure myself. Standing in that poncho and being celebrated despite or because of my differences would become an allegory for continuing past adversity, and served as a pathway for much of my work from then on.
This wasn’t the last time I toxified the environment around me, and it was far from the last time I was confused in my work. However, it was a major change moment for me that continues to inform my work, 25 years later. Today, my energy with young people and my peers is different. I have learned to simmer instead of boil and to marinate instead of explode. I’ve been taught that sense of racial exceptionalism extending from growing up in a predominantly African American neighborhood doesn’t apply, isn’t valid, and doesn’t matter. Sure, there are definite differences between Black people and white people, but they don’t extend towards enlightening me, a goofy white Canadian immigrant cis male. I have no special knowledge and I get no special pass because of my experience.
Perhaps most importantly though, I’ve learned to get quiet when it’s time. Back then, my humor wasn’t welcome, invited or appropriate most of the time. I’ve discovered that what I experienced wasn’t unusual or exceptional for that age, or for the experiences I had to that point: A lot of 19-year-olds, a lot of former homeless kids, a lot of struggling youth, a lot of first generation college students, and a lot of “racial-experience-diversified” white kids feel like they are both fitting in and sticking out. That knowledge has resulted in my own mellowing, calming and relaxation. I see now that this experience was good, and I’m grateful for having the times I did at this camp. I also know indebted to the people there who taught me, whether intentionally or accidentally.
My work continued after this, different than ever before…