“It’s not the same as last year.” That’s one of the sentences I heard my first year, which was last year. I never really understood why so many of the older campers said it, until now. A sentence I never thought I’d say came from my mouth yesterday. From what I remember, it was only said the first couple of days. There’s that strange familiar, yet unfamiliar, feeling that I felt last year. I just never thought anyone could be this nice. Everyone’s thoughtfulness and caring personalities come on so strong it seems almost unreal.
Personally, I think the first day is probably the hardest, and it’s understandable. It’s the first full day of camp and there are so many things to do, it’s almost overwhelming. Almost. It must be hard for the new campers too. I remember it being hard the first night last year. I couldn’t sleep, I was so nervous my hands were sweating, and I barely made eye contact with anyone who smiled at me. However, all those same things happened to me this year. I thought it would be easier, especially because I’ve been here before. After thinking about it during Siesta, I realized it would probably happen every time I have my “first day” at camp. I always want to make an amazing first impression. Whether it’s my first year or sixth year, I always want people to know me for me.
At the end of the first day, you can tell the new campers have adjusted a lot better. I’ve noticed so much more confidence and openness in the new campers in my cabin, than on arrival day. I really hope they know that they have nothing to be afraid of with the older campers. They might be a little intimidating, but they’re actually very kind and open to help out if you’re feeling homesick, because this isn’t just a camp, it’s a second home. The first day is probably the hardest to get through in the entire week, but you have to go through the first day, to be able to have the best time the rest of the week.
I was laying in bed Friday night, my bags already staged and packed when my papa told me our planned 6:00 AM flight from Chicago to San Francisco was not looking good. There had been a flight cancellation, and all the seats were filled up. He said we would fly out after 7:00 PM instead. Because my papa works for United Airlines, we fly standby which means our travel is never guaranteed and always changing.
“Man, that’s a bummer,” I thought to myself as I rolled over and fell asleep. When I woke, my family was already awake. I found out that because of the cancellation, an additional flight to SFO had been added and had almost 60 seats available. We bustled to get everything ready and left for the airport. When we pulled up, I hugged my mom and cousin goodbye and headed into O’Hare thinking about how much I would miss them. We went to bag check and checked my sleeping bag and suitcase. That’s unusual for us because standby flying means we travel light. After we made it through and were re-assembling our stuff, we watched a man and his wife getting her stuff checked by an agent. The man made a joke to the TSA employee about how they had “went through a garage sale on the way.” The TSA did not look amused. We got a drink at Starbucks and headed to the gate, which we realized was the same one we flew out of on our trip to Hawaii.
After a short wait and some Zelda, they called up Allen, Party of 2. This plane was a Boeing 777, the biggest one I have ever flown on. We were row 20, Economy Plus. The TVs on the flight were free, so I watched Sing!, Moana and two Friends episodes on the long flight. When we walked out to Gate 82 in San Francisco, we discovered it was the same one we would use for the Medford flight. Our layover was 5 hours, and we ate at a restaurant called Buena Vista where I had amazing chicken nachos. Papa’s fish was kind of greasy and disappointing but mine made up for it. We searched the nearby terminals for any sign of a headphone adapter for Papa’s phone, to no avail. I charged my 3Ds back up, and before I knew it Papa told me we had seats already assigned in First Class! The flight was super fast and smooth. We got to walk down a set of flight stairs, which I don’t remember doing before and we made it to baggage claim. While we were waiting we rented a cute, tiny silver Mitsubishi. Compared to our SUV at home, it was the size of an ant. While we waited on my luggage, I stood next to two boys who were talking about how the baggage that no one claims always comes out first while your baggage always comes out last. We got our luggage, found the rental car, and headed to our hotel. We immediately dropped our stuff, changed into PJs and fell asleep.
The Next Morning
I woke up and checked my watch to find that it was 10:01 AM. Wow, we slept late! That’s when it occurred to me that free breakfast at the hotel ended at 10:00. “Papa, Papa! Get up; we have to go downstairs now”.
We ran down in our PJ’s to find the staff about to close up. “Are you closed?” we asked.
“I’m not gonna stop you from grabbing breakfast.” YES; Free breakfast!
We exclaimed “Thank you!” as we grabbed trays, loading them up with biscuits and gravy, cereal and juice.
We hungrily sat down to eat. When we had finished, we went upstairs and got changed for the day. We talked to my mom on the phone and discussed news about how my old school was changing. We headed to Target to get snacks and a pillow where we again looked for Papa’s headphone adapter. Still no luck. Finally, as a last chance, we went to Walmart. Success! The hunt was over. When we got back to the hotel, I began writing my blog post.
Since we live in Chicago, a lot of restaurants from places on the East Coast aren’t available. One of these places is In N’ Out Burger. My papa loves In N’ Out, so we decided that on the way to camp, we would stop by. Man, was it good. After a quick stop to clean up the exploded soda and put on The Essential Billy Joel, we were on the road to Camp Latgawa. On the way out, I learned about mile markers and watched some cows and horses. Finally, after about an hour drive we were pulling into camp’s parking lot.
After a quick check in with Matt and Margie, Rob helped me to carry my stuff up to Cabin 3. I was the second one to pick a bunk, and I got the one closest to the door and window, that way if Jason tries to get me at night, I have the best chance of escape. I made my way back down the hill and met Jim, my advisor. We chatted about rock climbing for a while and then I made my way over to Nyrten, a girl my age. She was super fun to talk to and we explored the campgrounds with each other. Then, it was time to say goodbye to Papa. We hugged each other goodbye and he went to go back to the hotel. After staff introductions, we split off into our advisee groups. We ate dinner together and then it was night time. NBTSC is really cool and doesn’t enforce a bedtime. Places close at different times and you should be quieter, but we go to bed when we want. I stayed up late talking with my cabin mates until we all drifted off, thoughts of tomorrow’s adventures already popping up in our heads.
This will be my 8th session of Not Back to School Camp and my third year on staff. In some ways camp has changed on a fundamental level for me. I am no longer 15 years old, freshly out of high school and terribly accident-prone. I’m no longer a new camper, or even a new staffer. In many ways my relationship to camp has come full circle as I take on the role of First Aid Person at this session. Despite this deep sense of familiarity with camp I still find myself surprised by the magic, the challenges, and the beautiful connections made here.
Coming into staff orientation I was feeling extremely prepared. If you know me, you know how much I like to be prepared. I like plans, and I like having back up plans to those plans. Ideally those plans are color-coded and neatly organized, too. I had visions of myself being blissfully not stressed out by medical and administrative pre-camp paperwork during staff orientation and throughout camp. Unsurprisingly, I found myself blindsided and overwhelmed by the time the evening rolled around as my plans unraveled and new information poured in. I was no longer super prepared. I was tired, sad, and stressed out.
Luckily camp is a pretty safe place to feel vulnerable and terrified that you’re extraordinarily bad at your job because you can’t predict the future. Camp is a sanctuary, a place to practice asking for help and mentorship. Last night, as I delegated the making of spreadsheets and asked for hugs from my fellow staff members, I remembered the sense of safety and support I felt my first year of camp. I also wondered why I’m surprised that I’m met with such kindness and sweetness every year, no matter what my role at camp is. Now, as I sit on a rumbling school bus listening to the hum of excited campers with my staff binder by my side, I reflect on how grateful I am to be able to both create and experience the mission of Not Back to School Camp:
“Not Back to School Camp aspires to create a sanctuary that affirms, inspires, and mentors unschoolers; where campers and staff transform spiritually, emotionally, physically, creatively, intellectually; where profound friendships begin and grow; and where adventure, mystery, music, wild spontaneous fun, and magic prevail.”
Even as the boring staff meetings, seemingly endless health forms, and to-do lists piled around me yesterday I found myself collecting inspiration from Nathen’s presentations on development and value-making stage models, Margie’s enthusiasm for Spot the Pig (Latgawa’s newest edition), and Robin’s remarkable grace under the pressure of her role as the lone Jr. Staffer. I slid down a waterfall, drank coffee under a beautiful blue sky, and listened to my fellow staffers sing. I got to know our new staffer Jim, and caught up with the rest of our staff team whom I consider to be very close friends. As staff orientation ended and we prepared for arrival day I knew we were already creating and experiencing camp. I love this timeless place. It is an eternal home where adventure, mystery, music, wild spontaneous fun, and magic always prevails.
When I first heard about camp last year, I imagined one day I might have the chance to work at it. Last month my imagination became my reality. While visiting Oregon for the first time to perform stand-up comedy at the Oregon Country Fair, Grace unexpectedly extended the invite for me to be an advisor at this year’s camp. This was an offer I could not refuse.
Since it appears I am the only staff member here who has never worked at NBTSC before, and possibly the only one who also never attended as a camper, I suppose my first impressions are pretty unique as are my expectations.
As I understand NBTSC, this is a place for unschooled teens to come together for a magical week where they get to live amongst their own tribe members, liberated from the sometimes isolating and often judgmental world of mainstream civilization (and free from parents!) I’ve seen this tribal magic in action at a couple unschooling conferences I’ve attended and am excited since NBTSC has a reputation for providing an even more potent dose of magic.
Using the word “magic” three times in a paragraph feels a little unusual for me, so I will try and describe what this tribal magic is that I speak of. For me, I feel like at many different points in life, I’ve taken the path less traveled. In doing so, it’s felt empowering to know I’ve made a courageous decision that I truly believe in. Unfortunately, in taking the path less traveled, I’ve often looked around and felt alone on that path. Then I begin to wonder: Did I make the wrong choice? Why aren’t others on this path with me? Am I destined to travel this path alone forever? If I speed up, will I catch up to some others, or if I slow down, can I wait for more people to meet me? Am I destined to either (1) take the path I believe in and be lonely or (2) to choose the path that feels less authentic yet allows me to be around more people?
Then, magically, I stumble upon a community of likeminded individuals. Suddenly, without any tangible change in the world, my perspective changes and I am not alone. That is the power that having a community can bring to you. This is not to say that one should live in a bubble their whole life, surrounded only by likeminded people. But there is no doubt about it, being around people who have made similar life choices to you brings validation to your decisions, and opportunities to exchange ideas and share experiences that will increase the enjoyment of your journey. I think of this sudden feeling of belonging as “magic” because it is a transformative change that happens quickly and without any noticeable physical changes – it is invisible and powerful.
As to the specific process that I expect to take place at NBTSC to create this magic, I’m not really sure. I know we are in a beautiful campground in the woods, there are many workshops offered for teens to get involved in, the staff I’ve met seem like great people, and there’s a waterfall and swimming hole for relief from the heat… but I think more than anything, the camp is about teen unschoolers connecting and bonding with other teens. The workshops, activities, and natural setting are the vice that holds the community in place while the magical glue sets. Describing the camp as a vice that is holding unschooled teens in place is pretty much the opposite of the reality, but I think the literary paradox is worth keeping in this paragraph. A better analogy might involve gravitational waves holding them together, but using Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation as a metaphor for love and community deserves a blog post of its own.
I’m reminded of a talk I saw Patch Adams give where he described his frustrations with the way his medical philosophy was portrayed in the film named after him. He said, “People believe that I think laughter is the best medicine. It is not. I believe friendship is the best medicine. It just happens to be that laughter is the best way to lubricate the magical machine that builds friendships.”
Of course I could be completely wrong about all this… this is all an educated guess. Much like the teens who will arrive tomorrow for their first day of camp, I am also about to learn for myself what NBTSC is all about.
2016 was my first year at Not Back To School Camp. I didn’t spend much time deciding whether to go, either. In late July my mom found out about the camp and called me over to look at pictures. She asked if it looked interesting. I said yes. A place full of homeschooled kids playing games and making music and talking? Sign me up! Less than a week of researching (mostly deciding what session to go to) later, I was registered for the Vermont 2016 session of NBTSC.
Over the next week or two, we filled out and sent all the forms that were needed and also bought plane tickets and worked out where I was going to stay and how I would travel (which was ridiculously complicated due to the fact that I was 15 and traveling internationally alone, but that’s a story for another time.) In mid September, I flew to Massachusetts, stayed with another camper (who happened to be a friend) for a few days, and then drove to camp with them.
I remember being mildly excited and a tiny bit nervous as we were getting close. My friend was just plain excited, but they had been there before. Looking at it now, I’ll probably mostly feel excitement when I go back! But at that time I wasn’t entirely sure what was coming.
When we drove up to the farmhouse, I remember looking at all the people and wondering who they were. We parked and I sat in the car for a few moments, trying to get up my courage to get out. I’m a shy person. My friend jumped out of the car and ran off. I lost track of them, so I stuck with her mom, who had driven us there. We walked over to a table with a few staff members behind it. I could tell that they were staff because they were wearing camp t-shirts (if any of you are reading this, that was so helpful!) All around me people were greeting each other. They seemed happy, and it was kind of infectious. One person, a staff member, (I don’t remember who because I didn’t know them yet) said hi to me and asked my name, which was nice. It was cool to be included even though I hadn’t been there before and wasn’t sure what I was doing. He said he was looking forward to the workshop I was leading later in the session. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. I was excited that he kind of knew who I was, but the idea that people already knew something about me was slightly intimidating.
The table was the official welcoming table, where each camper, new and old, went by to get a name tag and answer a few questions (mostly about your health and whether you’ve brought any medications to camp that they have to take care of). I could do that just fine, but then I was left at the end entirely unsure what to do. I had been told that I had been assigned to a room inside the farmhouse (instead of the outdoor cabins I had expected and that most people sleep in), but I didn’t know how to get there or anything. If I were a different person I would probably have immediately gone exploring to find out, but instead I retrieved my suitcase from the car and kind of stood by the steps looking around for a while. I hate trying to do things I’m not used to.
Eventually I convinced myself to just go and try to find my room myself. When I got up on the farmhouse porch, a girl with short, curly, periwinkle hair bounced up to me and asked if I was new. I said yes. She asked if I knew where I was going. I said no, but I was pretty sure I was inside. She could work with that, and showed me where the stairs were and offered to carry my suitcase. I told her it was heavy, but agreed. It was such a nice thing to do. I ended up going upstairs with her and one or two other kids who appeared to know each other. To my mild surprise, I didn’t feel particularly left out. Everyone was so immediately welcoming and clearly wanted everyone at camp to be happy.
I located my room and put my bag there. I don’t remember whether I unpacked anything at that point or not. Then I went back downstairs and out onto the farmhouse porch. The porch was full of kids, most of them talking and clearly having a great time. (One of my first memories of that was someone coming around the corner and exclaiming to a friend, “You dyed your hair!”) I looked around until I found my friend’s mom so I could tell her that I had found my room all right. Neither of us knew where my friend was at that point, but her mom said that she was going to the parents’ orientation and would I be okay. I said yes and stood in the middle of the porch kind of looking around and trying to figure out what to do. Around then a couple people came up and started to talk to me. We introduced ourselves and started talking about something that we all knew a lot about – homeschooling! It was a great icebreaker, because it was something we could connect on easily and also something that it’s hard to find people to talk with about at home.
A little aside here – when I go back to camp I plan to make sure to talk to new people. People on the porch coming up and including me in their conversation on the porch helped me get settled so well, and made me feel like a part of the group immediately. Having someone just automatically help me find my room was the same thing, just little kindnesses that made me, someone who is awkward and nervous in new situations, feel so much more comfortable and helped me adjust to camp quicker. I want to do that for others, because I know what it feels like to be left out, even if people aren’t doing it on purpose.
Time passed. The parents and other droppers-off left. Then I got to experience the camp bell for the first time. It’s actually more of a crude marimba type thing that looks a bit like it’s made out of metal railroad ties, but when it’s hit with a hammer it rings and the different lengths of metal make different tones. As I learned later, it’s rung at the change between activities at camp – beginning of meals, check in, project time, advisee time, end of advisee time, etc. This time, the first time it rang at NBTSC Vermont 2016, it meant that we were supposed to go to the field for the welcome circle – the official beginning of camp. At the time I didn’t know that, and the only reason I ended up in the field was because some of my conversation partners told me.
That evening was welcome circle, our first advisee group, and the opening ceremony. In every single activity, I learned more about camp and felt more and more comfortable. By the time we were halfway through advisee time, I truly felt that I had never been so comfortable anywhere but my home with my family. I expected to be comfortable at camp, but I didn’t expect to feel as comfortable as I had ever felt anywhere, and by the first evening. I believe I said as much to the group.
Once I had been at camp for a full day, I felt settled in. I was a little homesick – I hadn’t seen my family in several days – but other than that I was very happy. That’s unusual for me. I’ve moved a lot but I’d never been away from my family before, and I tend to need familiarity to feel at home. But for some reason, camp was the exception. Camp was the exception for a lot of things. Camp is magic.
One of the things that I told myself I would do at camp was try new things. Try things that I wasn’t comfortable with. It was one of the smartest decisions I made regarding camp. The atmosphere of the entire place made trying things easy. Everyone understood that you weren’t perfect, and they supported you if you were nervous. No one would dream of being unkind to someone who messed something up. At camp I tried speaking in front of people. I sang in front of people. I talked to people all the time. I made jokes without worrying about whether people would be amused.
My mantra for the session was “just do it”. By following that plan, I ended up doing things like canoeing across the lake, swimming across a cold, dark area of water (that one was terrifying, but I’m alive), going off a rope swing into said cold, dark area of water, leading a workshop, serving lunch to around fifty people singlehanded, learning to lead in partner dancing, and so much more. Some of those things I might have tried other places, given the chance. I might have skipped a lot of them, too.
Time seems different at camp. No one remembers what day of the week it is. Everything is talked about by days at camp.
“When is your workshop?”
“When was the staff talent show?”
“Really? I thought it was later.”
“What day of the week was swimming?”
It’s amusing. And a bit endearing. I’m guilty of talking about time that way myself. There’s no need to talk about weeks or anything at camp. Camp and everything in it exists in a separate dimension. We’re out in the woods all alone for over a week, just us.
And then, all too fast and yet after seemingly forever, we had to leave. It was sad (yay understatement) but it gave me a chance to look back on what I had done at camp and how amazing it had been. When I arrived I knew no one and nothing. Less than ten days later I knew everyone, some of them relatively well. I knew every rock in the path behind the farmhouse. I knew exactly how many benches I could carry at once without hurting anything.
At the beginning of camp we wrote down things that we wanted to do or parts of ourselves that we wanted to express at camp. We also wrote down things we didn’t want to be a part of our experience. At the end of camp, we got the paper with the things we didn’t want back. Some people said they didn’t want to read it, and I understand. But I read mine. And I realized that all of those things – my homesickness, my shyness, and all the other things that I wrote down – are things that I actually didn’t have a problem with during camp. I don’t know if it was writing them down or if camp just doesn’t lend itself to unhappiness, but I hadn’t allowed those things to cloud what I was doing for the entire eight (and a half? Nine?) days I was there. It made me so happy.
It hadn’t rained pretty much the whole time I was at camp, but it was drizzling the morning of departure. I don’t know if it made it easier or harder to leave, but I do remember thinking how lucky we were that the rain held off until camp was over. People were hugging each other and getting into cars and driving off one by one, and I was torn between being happy to still be with them and sad because soon we wouldn’t be together. I ended up feeling an odd mix.
Eventually I left too. I actually did cry then, but mostly after we had truly left camp behind. I remember being upset that camp was over and missing my family immensely. I still had to travel back home before I was with them. I was going to stay with my friend for a night, then go back to the airport and go home the next day. The time between was the hardest.
I do have one recommendation here. Tempting as it is to stay up extremely late on the last night of camp, I don’t think I’d recommend it. Having experienced plenty of jet lag and overnight plane flights, I’ve always said I don’t understand the allure of staying up all night. Still, I stayed up until after 4 AM, and ended up getting around two hours of sleep. The lack of sleep almost undoubtedly added to the misery I was feeling and amplified it. I’m currently planning on trying to go to sleep at a relatively decent hour next year, and I encourage anyone else out there to do the same.
And then I was gone. I had bought a camp hoodie and t-shirt, which I wore nonstop because they gave some comfort with their definite camp-ness. Getting internet for the first time in over a week was also interesting. I sort of dabbled for a little while, getting used to internet contact again and mostly using it to call my family. One of the things that definitely helped, though, was the fact that I had Facebook friend requests from tons of campers. My camp friends who didn’t have Facebook emailed me soon after. Having any sort of correspondence with the people who I had enjoyed so much was very nice. I could commiserate with them about missing camp and each other, and it helped a lot.
Through all of this, I comforted myself with daydreams of returning. And thoughts of telling my family all of the amazing things I had done. There were plenty of happy things to think about, especially once I had some semblance of normalcy return to my life. The sadness of leaving camp was unpleasant, but well worth the fantastic experiences I had and the friends I made. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I can’t wait for next year.
There is a buzzing, bustling electricity at Not Back to School Camp. It is a place where the serendipity of a chance conversation or a planned activity have equal chance of bringing about a new friendship or a life-changing realization. It is a place where homeschooled, unschooled, and self-educated teenagers are celebrated and supported. It is also a place that literally includes “magic” and “wild spontaneous fun” in the mission statement.
It’s hard to believe that Not Back to School Camp has existed for more than 20 years. Many moons ago, when I first attended camp as a baggy-pantsed 17 year old, I never imagined how much camp would expand or how my journey would continue to meander alongside it. What was once one location has grown into many. From the base of a waterfall in southern Oregon, to the moss-draped forest of Camp Myrtlewood, to the blazing red leaves of Vermont in fall, to the desert of Joshua tree: Not Back to School Camp has become many places.
This past year, teenagers traveled from as far away as Serbia to see what happens when they convene with other young people who are trusted to pursue learning that is non-traditional. There are no set bedtimes. Few things are mandatory. Workshops and activities are led by teens as well as staff. This past year workshops included: sticker making, basics of piano, Argentine tango, “how to get stuff done,” cyanotypes (19th century photography), trauma resilience/how to develop emotional resiliency, tinkering/maker space, “how to move out,” nurturing soil for fertility and health, what goes on in a US Embassy?, babies: your questions answered, Charleston and Waltz (dance), intro to Arabic language, drawing cats & random things, investigating privilege, “how to have a non-trivial conversation,” discussion on religion and spirituality, capoeira (Brazilian martial art), soccer, and so many more.
Executive Creative Director at Buzzfeed and NBTSC Alumna Summer Anne Burton leads a workshop for campers on social media.
I am often humbled by the young people who I meet at camp. By their intelligence, their courage, their instinct for fairness, and the trust they offer to those of us on staff. Not everyone who works with youth experiences the feeling of being on the same team. It’s exhilarating and it’s a privilege. Campers seek out staffers to discuss the things that are central to their lives: friendships and families, passions and plans, heartaches and hopes.
In ways both large and small, I’ve seen teenagers do remarkable things. One of the most important things I’ve learned from campers at Not Back to School Camp is you don’t know what young people are capable of until you’ve believed in them.
I am so grateful to all of the staff, campers and families who played a part in the 2016 season. It was great to be at every session in 2016, but in 2017 I’ll be scaling back. Once again I’ll be delighted to be sharing the directing role with NBTSC founder, executive director and thinker-upper Grace Llewellyn and for the first time ever, longtime staffer Matt Sanderson! I hope you’ll join us!
Well, this was a session for the history books. We got so busy we forgot to update the blog. So here are some photos from the end of our incredible session together including the field trip (on election day) and our Halloween themed Prom.