Reflections After Oregon Session 1 (Latgawa 2017, By Jim.)

Jim Staff photo for blog
Jim at Staff Orientation. Photo by Dandy.

I find myself in a very challenging position.  As a complete newbie to Not Back to School Camp, I volunteered to write the pre-camp blog post as well as the post-camp recap.  My hypothesis was that I’d have something very meaningful to share because I was brand new to camp.   I found writing the pre-camp blog post to be really easy and a lot of fun.  Writing the post-camp recap is much harder.

I want to convey what an amazing time I had, yet also make it relatable to campers (I’m a senior staff member), and not make it seem like I’m trying to blatantly promote this wonderful camp.  If I were simply to list all of the activities that took place, that would be easy, though the list would be quite long.  The challenge here is really to capture my experience in writing; to convey the emotions and feelings that accompanied me throughout the week of camp.  This is much harder for me to do. It is also challenging for me to write, because I don’t think I’m a great writer, yet I want to ensure that I am able to articulate just how fucking incredible my week at NBTSC truly was.  That is a challenge better suited for someone with better literary talents, like some of the teens at the camp. I will do my best, as that is the best than one can do.

I can already hear the thoughts of the campers reading this, “NO DISCLAIMERS, JIM!”

If you read my blog post last week, my expectations for camp were as follows: “As I understand NBTSC, this is a place for unschooled teens to come together for a magical week…” I was confident that I was going to a place where unschoolers bonded, but I really wasn’t sure how it worked, as I later wrote: “As to the specific process that I expect to take place at NBTSC to create this magic, I’m not really sure.” After a week at NBTSC, I believe I understand what the source of the magic is.  The magic comes from the creation of ceremony and rituals that generate a rite of passage for teens.  Using words like ‘rituals’ and ‘ceremony’ may scare someone off at first so let me explain.  As unschoolers, teens abandon the traditional rituals and rite of passage one would be subjected to by attending a high school. Namely, the rituals of getting on a bus, shuffling into the building, moving from class to class upon the ring of the bell, going to dances and athletic events, and finally walking across the stage in a graduation ceremony.

In rejecting these traditions, unschoolers are left to their own devices to generate their own traditions.  Not Back to School Camp has paved the way by creating a series of events that offer teens their own set of traditions.  In my opinion, the rituals performed at NBTSC are far more meaningful, valuable, and challenging than those offered by the school system.

First, there is Bonding Night.  Bonding Night begins outside as the teens hold hands and sing as they enter their ceremonial space.  Then, the teens get a chance to open their hearts to one another as they are paired with randomly selected partners, sit in silence while sustaining eye contact for 2 minutes, and answering self-reflective questions such as “What does love mean to you?” and “Where do you feel the safest?” and “Who do you admire most?”  The ceremony concludes with a ritual called “Unconditional Love” which involves lots and lots of hugs.  As I write this, I feel I am doing a poor job of conveying the power behind this event.  I imagine you, the reader, as if you are reading about a senseless ceremony performed by a hunter-gatherer tribe.  To merely read about dancing in a circle, chanting and singing, lacks the meaning that is only experienced by being a part of the community and the ceremony.  To an outsider, the ritual just appears like a series of actions – but to a community member, it carries great meaning and significance in bonding the community.

girls club
Hanging out on the floor in the lodge.

Next, there is Seeing and Seen.  This is another event that allows the community members to connect more deeply with their peers.  The event starts with circling up outside, holding hands, and singing…  Inside the building, the group forms a circle.  The person leading the ceremony then reads off different identifying qualities and people step into the circle if they identify with the statement.  Sometimes things are simple: “I identify as a man,” or “I am spiritual.”  They can get harder as they dig deeper into your soul. For example: “I have mental health problems,” or “I have been a victim of racism.” The second part of the ceremony involves giving every teen an opportunity to get up in front of a smaller group and share something about themselves that they wish people knew.  The mutual sharing made the connection between the members of the community stronger.

Then, there is a Prom.  Maybe that’s something you, dear reader, will relate to more.  When I attended prom as a teenager, it looked similar to any other high school dance.  I was incredibly miserable.  Dressing up and dancing just isn’t for me.  The NBTSC prom, however, is a whole different story.   Rather than the traditional tuxedos and ballroom dresses, NBTSC campers get to create their own adventure.  For example, this years’ theme was “under the sea” and campers dressed accordingly, with one camper even arriving in a mask, snorkel, and flippers.  It was very much a “be who you are” event.  In fact, that’s really what the entire week was: “Be yourself, we welcome you, we love you.”  That is a message that is not very common out there in the world and it was a pleasure to see it in action at camp.

rav and sor
Campers in a tree on departure day

The final night was the Closing Ceremony.  This involved more hand-holding, dancing, and hugging.  The campers who were in their final year at NBTSC got a chance to give a speech addressing their fellow campers, giving a final good bye to them.  It was incredibly touching to hear the words of the long-time campers as they shared their stories of personal growth.

Camp has many other activities going on too.  There are workshops being run all day – some by staff, some by campers.  I had the privilege of running workshops on public speaking, mental health, entrepreneurship, and sober living.  I sat on two staff panels, one where we discussed “How to find meaningful work” and one where we discussed “Healthy Sexuality.”  There was also a staff talent show where I got a chance to do standup for teens for the very first time (I think I enjoyed it as much as they did).

Camper-run “I Spy Wall” with post-it notes of kind things people noticed each other doing.

There are also a lot of impromptu activities.  I’d like to share the two most powerful ones, for me:

The first was an impromptu reading of a children’s book created by a camper.  I arrived in “Uncle Joe’s Cabin” to see a group of teens sitting on the carpet in front of Ki as they began reading.  It was reminiscent of a scene from my childhood, being read to in the school library.  The book was written and illustrated by Ki. It shared their story of self-discovery into self-directed learning.  Ki’s reading was accompanied by their partner, Raven, who played guitar lightly in the background.  It was an incredibly touching scene and a story that I think should be shared with children around the world.

The second was one of the final nights of camp when we had a night swim.  I had already been swimming twice that day, once in the pool in the morning and once in the swimming hole in the afternoon.  I planned on simply being the pool supervisor for the night swim, but I couldn’t resist the urge to dive in and play.  I suddenly found myself in a pool with 75 other people, laughing, music blasting, singing, hitting around a glow-in-the-dark beach ball…. I looked up and saw a star-filled sky. We were surrounded in every direction by sky-high trees.  The scene was like out of a movie – where else would one ever find a group of friends that large having that much fun in such a setting?

To loop back to my pre-camp post – I wondered what magic would be used to create a culture and community that was capable of such fun in a week-long camp?  I think a great deal of this magic is the product of the meaningful ceremonies which I described. The willingness to love, the total acceptance, and the ease of connections at camp somehow seem effortless and yet are also the culmination of so much time and effort. Camp was fucking incredible. It would take me some serious wordsmith training to be able to articulate this properly to you.  It would save me a lot of effort learning to be a better writer if you’d just go and see the NBTSC magic for yourself.