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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.

Day 7 ~ (Latgawa, 2017 by Asher F.)

Asher, Today’s Author

Day 7, this has been a rollercoaster, let’s start from the morning. I fell asleep in Uncle Joe’s next to my best friends and woke up feeling amazing but tired. It hadn’t quite set in that it was the last day, but boy was I in for a surprise. I had gotten my stuff out of Uncle Joe’s and put it away, and then I went to breakfast. It was a pretty normal breakfast – banana bread, eggs, oatmeal etc. After that I headed to morning meeting with some friends. I don’t remember what we talked about but it was very funny. In morning meeting we sang a beautiful song which really helped me wake up to camp spirit.

After morning meeting we had advisee time, which was our last advisee. During advisee we played hot seat and we asked some serious and silly questions. When I got up I was asked an array of questions, from camp crushes (nobody, lol) to things on my bucket list (visit Thailand, most of Asia, and South Korea). After advisee was lunch. It was chili, yum. During lunch I sat with my friends Raven, Ki, and a few others whose names escape me. I really enjoyed talking with them as I always do.

Shortly after that I headed out to mess around a bit and then went to a workshop called “how to take nbtsc home with you.” The panelists had very good advice on how to deal with after-camp blues, keeping camp spirit with you, and keeping your passion going. It was great.

After the workshop we all had to go to camp clean-up. After we assembled, we all got assigned to a work crew. I got put on general buildings and grounds clean-up. We had to go through all the cabins and clean them up, which entailed sweeping the floors, taking out trash bags, and putting anything on the floors into lost and found.

We put a lot into lost and found. Thankfully we had about 8 people, so clean-up was fast.

After clean-up was dinner, which was very good. It was a baked potato bar (yummy in my tummy). I quickly scarfed down my food, however, because I wanted to have time to meditate. After I meditated for a bit I walked around and talked to friends. I talked to my friend Raven again and asked to borrow their book on crystals.  It’s a very cool book. Shortly after that I was trying to find my crystal because I had lost it (or so I thought). For about 10 minutes I looked around for it with my friend Bryan. And then I found it in my top vest pocket (yup). After that

After that fiasco we had evening meeting which went really well. We sang songs and had a normal meeting. Then, Matt the logistics person started FIRING PEOPLE. WHOA! Not really. The staff had made a very funny skit that I don’t think I could do justice to in writing. After that was

After that was closing ceremony, which was intense. It got really emotional. There  was a lot of singing and the traditional last-night camp rituals.  A lot of my friends are in their last year, so it was really sad for me. I cried a lot. After that, we all hung out outside and had some deep and thoughtful conversations which I don’t want to share here, but they were amazing and made me realize how much I love this camp and the people here., so yeah that was my day hope you enjoyed reading about it,

So yeah, that was my day. Hope you enjoyed reading about it, Asher out.

Day 6 ~ (Latgawa 2017, by Emma K.)

Emma, Today’s Author

Hi everyone! My name is Emma and this is my 3rd year at camp, but my first time writing for the blog. I’ll be talking about day 6 today!

I’m usually an early riser at camp, so I got up around 7:30 and went to the dining hall to see if anyone was there. Turns out, there was a group of people playing a card game when I got there! We played until it was time for wakeup call and breakfast.

After breakfast, morning meeting, and advisee groups I started packing to get ready to go home, because this is one of the last few days. I got my camp “Love Letter” that I almost forgot about!

After all that was lunch, which was really… interesting (I saw another camper eat a bite of banana without peeling it!) Then there was a swimming slot and there was no thunder today! Workshops were after that, where I chose to do an improv workshop and played an RPG which was pretty much Firefly (I played a character that reminded me of Mal)

After workshops was dinner and evening meeting, where we decided to play a prank on senior staff (We all gasped loudly whenever Evan looked at his clipboard). There was also a talent show before “Prom”. There was singing, dancing, piano, and someone even showed off their prom dress that they made themselves!

After that was “Prom” I actually forgot to bring anything for prom, but luckily someone had a banana costume, and I wore it pretty much all night. The theme this year was Octopus’ Garden, so I feel like the banana fit.

I didn’t stay at prom the whole time, but I did stay long enough that I think I can say I had a good time and that it was a good way to end the 2nd to last full day.


Day 5 ~ (Latgawa, 2017 by Nyrten G.)

Nytern photo
Nyrten, today’s author. Photo by Sophie 

As a new camper, camp has been a rollercoaster of emotion. I connected with people so fast, and then begun to doubt their friendship. Yesterday was the first day that didn’t end badly. It started out with someone cuddling a branch in advisee because it wouldn’t stop hitting them, and for a chunk of the day until workshops, it was rather uneventful.

But then, workshops happened. Somebody held a workshop named How To Psychically Communicate With Multidimensional Fish (if you’ve been to the Latgawa session, you probably know who I’m talking about) which ended in everyone carrying one of the participants from Uncle Joe’s into the field where we set him in a circle of improv-ers playing Bunny Bunny and pretended to sacrifice him. Was it weird? Yeah, that’s the point. After that, there was lunch and siesta, and after that I was PLANNING on going to more workshops, but I was distracted by some people being what most people would call inappropriate, but I call funny, and I missed all of the workshop slots because of this. I’m not complaining, just saying that if it weren’t for YOU I would’ve gone to something about yoga. On second thought, I’m glad they distracted me.

And then at evening meeting, they broke my brain. The junior staff had us split into three groups and sing Baa Baa Black Sheep, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and The Alphabet Song ALL AT THE SAME TIME, because apparently they all have the same tune. It was crazy. And then, there was the Creation Circle event, which was camp-wide hide and seek. Instead of doing that, I mostly just played cards and prepared for writing this blog post, because as a fiction writer, this scares me. After that, there was night swimming, which sounds cool and fancy, but is actually just going swimming in the pool at night. It was awesome, though. There was music and a light-up beach ball, and at one point we threw someone into the pool. Don’t worry, it was consensual. After that it would’ve been the smart choice to go to sleep, but I don’t tend to make smart choices, and I stayed up until 1:30 cuddling in the library. Pretty shocked I got out of bed on time to write this, honestly.

On the first day I was here, everybody said that there was only a sliver of time that we could be thought of as ‘new campers,’ because soon enough we’d have integrated into camp. I didn’t believe them then, but they were right.

Day 4 ~ (Latgawa 2017, by Berry R.)

Berry, today’s author. Photo by Sophie 

Thursday at camp always feels like a huge turning point for me and for a lot of campers. It’s also one of the most exhausting days physically and mentally in good ways. Thursday is our adventure day, where we get many opportunities to leave the main campsite for a little bit and go hiking up to the supposedly haunted cabin up on the hill, take a dip in the swimming hole or join in on one of the many fun organized adventures within camp. Sleep wise camp is always a struggle for me, so instead of heading off and joining in on all the magical activities I decided to stand on the sidelines and observe, take in other people having the time of their life since my own body and mind needed rest. I sat and watched a huge game of prisoners base organized by one of our amazing staffers Margie, which is pretty much capture the flag and is a blast to take part in or enjoy the hilarity and friendly competition, a lot of campers get really into the game. So I sat and gigged along with everyone else either playing or viewing the mayhem unfolding.

I’ve been going to camp for five years now, ever since I was thirteen and every single year as much as I enjoy the workshops and events, a huge part of my camp experience is connecting and having one on one conversations with people. I guess my adventures that day weren’t so much going and doing and physical activity, more mental adventures, pushing myself to go to talks and sit with people I had been wanting to connect with but been shying away from. The environment at camp is one where some of the most eye opening and healing communication can happen within a few minutes. I was talking to a camper and realizing that, at NBTSC when someone asks you how you are doing you are allowed and feel safe enough to truly admit how you are feeling and what’s going on with you. There is no need to force a smile or pretend that you are feeling okay when you really aren’t. It cultivates such a loving and accepting environment, people will come up to you and check in constantly, the outside world there is such a lack of emotional honesty that is so encouraged at NBTSC.

I had about five different courageous conversations with a person that day who mean the world to me, and for me that was more of an adventure than hiking or jumping off a cliff side into freezing cold water.

Thursday is also seeing/seen circle, an evening event sort of like our bonding night that goes along with the wonderful supportive energy that flows through camp. Campers are given a chance to speak openly about a situation in their life or something that has happened that may be somewhat taboo or difficult to talk about, while doing so you are surrounded by campers ready to listen and comfort you when needed. Tears are shed and the emotional intensity can become a bit overwhelming for some campers, but over all I’ve always found it to be one of the most therapeutic experiences. Humans coming together to connect over vulnerabilities without judgment and during the emotional intensity, being surrounded by unconditional love and support. Hands were held and we all sat around being there in that moment of relief, getting something so heavy out in the open.

I had my emotional moments and found safe spaces with campers who were more than willing to hug, chat, and just be there during it all. It’s why I return year after year, to come to a place where emotions are not only validated by accepted by all. I headed off to sleep feeling lighter than I did before.

Day 3 ~ (Latgawa 2017, by Lena)

Hello everyone! My name is Lena, and I’m about to be your tour guide through day 3 of camp.

lena photo blog
Lena’s Crown

After a hearty breakfast, we all gathered in the usual location to hear whatever important announcements awaited us from Grace and Evan. We heard that today would be a parent visitation day, and then learned a very important new word.

Ephebephobia. The fear of us, the mighty and terrifying teenagers.

Sadly, we heard news of a new addition to camp. A rattlesnake has taken up residence around the path up to the swimming hole, so for today and any day until we know it is safe, no hikes are allowed up to the swimming hole.

To end off morning meeting, we all gathered into a tight circle, picked a partner, and guided them around with their eyes closed. There ended up being significant amount of head on collisions, but I don’t think any campers have car insurance.

After a fairly typical advisee session, it was time for a quick workshop slot (I attended a psychic fish’s Q&A session, which was surprisingly accurate,) followed by a delicious Mac n’ Cheese lunch.

As time wore on in the day, the heat started to pick up quickly, leading to a very appreciated pool time… while it lasted. Around 30 minutes into the 3-hour pool time, we were forced to vacate the area due to rumbles of thunder all around us, the third day in a row that this has happened.

After a swift loss in the first round of the chess tournament, I then moved on to a very relaxed block of time to just hang out with some friends, play some music, and prepare ourselves for the night’s main event.

Talent Show 2: Electric Boogaloo started off fairly normally, with an act of a camper staring into people’s eyes while eating a banana before walking off the stage. A tough act to follow, I know, but next was the Ukulele Cult ft. Yours Truly, an original song performance, an absolutely mesmerizing lightshow, and topping it all off was a fairly comedic one man show.

As the night came to a close, or so I thought, I made my preparations to go to bed and headed to the dining hall to fill my water bottle. When I arrived, however, booming music just around the corner alerted me to the fact that a significantly sized dance party was going on, featuring lots of silly dancing and screaming along to songs we all loved.

All in all, it was just a fairly typical day at NBTSC.

Signing off,