When a couple of eight-year-old mouthy boys starting fighting around my four-year-old, I watched intently –through the camera lens– to monitor exactly when I needed to sprint over and save him. Bob, unaware the big boys could pummel him to a pancake, put a hand on each arm and commanded, ‘Freeze!’ It has been his game all summer camp, freezing staff, campers and us, only to unfreeze after a sufficiently silly pose has been held.
Both boys regarded the chubby white hand on their arms like an irritating mosquito, but something about its innocence melted their moods. I watched, heart thumping, as they unclenched fists, turned to the small boy and poured their angst into a different match: taking turns to freeze and unfreeze Bob. Tough city masks were dropped and they were boys in the woods again.
My Mama Bear heart swelled with pride.
“I stopped being such a dick,” was how the Dimple summed up his summer. He manages the maintenance team and it’s hard yakka motivating twenty-year-olds to care about 15,000 pounds of compost, truckloads of recycling, keeping generators running and campsites clean for 2000 children. Especially as his lads don’t arrive with pockets full of initiative. They come from tough worlds –one just watched his father get convicted of manslaughter– and good role models have been scarce.
The Dimple, on the other hand, is a resolute machine. If he can see a faster, more efficient way of doing something he will, and expects his team to operate the same way. But they don’t. Last year, he tried motivating them by being a staunch dick and the team complained. This summer, he started off as a controlling dick, which they also hated, on occasion he was a sarcastic dick but nobody realized he was joking, so he reverted to laid back dick. However, when the work inevitably slackened off, he reassessed and decided to be himself: firm but fair dick.
It worked, they were awarded Best Support Team of 2011. The Dimple and his lads puffed their chests out with pride – no smiles though as that would have been way too enthusiastic dick.
The ‘Dactyl was nicknamed Lady Gaga this summer – after appearing, stony faced, in our rickshaw with sunglasses on. She doesn’t give away grins, laughter or even a word to most faces, except us. “Just what you want in a daughter,” said the Dimple, “making people work for her attention,” taking credit for what is, really, two-year-old shyness.
At the final starlit disco of camp, the ‘Dactyl watched the big girls shake their booties, holding onto my finger. Then, for the first time in a crowd, she warmed up to strangers. Carefully mimicking dance moves, adding a fancy backwards slide and finally, dropping it like it was hot, she gained many fans and couldn’t stop grinning. Neither could we; our little Gaga dropped her guard. We had no idea all it would take would be some gangster rap.
My nosy beak melted this summer. Two journalists from San Francisco visited camp and attended a teenage girls’ overnight powwow. When the writer told me over half the group confessed to abuse or rape, my nostrils widened with interest. I had to witness that! On the next powwow I got myself an invitation, mental notebook in hand. I knew the rules: everyone attending had to participate, describing the best and worst days of their life.
The worst stories were about gun warfare, abuse and family disputes: watching a cousin bleed to death, the neighbours taking pot shots at your head while walking to school, being raped then accused of lying, kicked out of home at 12. After confessing, the girls, mostly 13 and 14, burst into tears and my cynical side wondered if they were putting it on, just a bit, egged on by the group.
I tried to feel empathy but with my journalist hat on, I couldn’t. Instead, I clocked up all the grit for a story one day. My mind also tossed around my most appropriate worst day: walking out on a destructive relationship (pre Dimple) or an eating disorder. After one girl confessed to downing salty water after meals so she could throw up, I settled on vomiting up blood as my worst moment.
Yet when my turn came, instead of my controlled, mother-of-two voice telling those girls how I got over my disorder, a thirteen-year-old voice escaped from me, full of doubt, fear and trembling. As I told my story, tears streamed down my cheeks, partly because I was telling people I didn’t know, and partly because I also had a sad memory. The simple process of sharing immersed me into the group for the night. It was amazing.
The overnight powwows have always been the pivotal point of camp, where barriers drop and children bond as they realize they’re not alone in their experiences. Finally, I understood why.
I tried to explain it to the Dimple when I got home, how I went from snooping voyeur to vulnerable, and he said, “So you learnt not to be such a dick too.” Yes indeed.