I Wish That I Knew What I Know Now, Or: Why I Teach Summer Camp.

When I was sixteen, I spent a summer as a camper at a theatre camp near my hometown. Sixty kids, three musicals, four weeks, one un-airconditioned auditorium. Mondays through Fridays, 9am until 2pm.

There’s a lot I remember from that summer, but the thing that sticks out to me today is how concerned we all were with parts. Not just the puberty kind of parts, although concern for and about one another’s “parts” was definitely in the air that summer. But the parts I’m talking about are the roles. You know. Who was cast in the big parts – the Tevyes, the Cosettes, the Ado Annies and Annie Warbucks. Who nailed their auditions and who blew it. Who were the winners, and who were the stars, and who was just there to fill out the chorus. Wondering where you fit in. Wondering who was paying attention. Wondering who to sit with at lunch. Wondering if you were being judged. Knowing that you were, by both the kids and the adults alike. Wondering if it mattered.

I’ve been thinking about that summer a lot, because it’s been eleven years since then, and I spend my summers as an instructor at a summer theatre camp now, making everything feel strangely full-circle. Sixty kids. Three week sessions. Air conditioning, and a real stage, although everyone still brings their lunch in a bag.

The difference is that no one in my camp gets to be the star. Well, more or less. The basic gist is that the kids get to create their own plays – no scripts arrive pre-written, no auditions, no intense whispering about who gets to do what. They get to make it up themselves, and I get to curate. And nothing enrages me more than hearing a parent report that the play “didn’t make sense.”

Of course it didn’t. Your kids wrote it. And I guarantee, I’d rather watch fifteen minutes of rehearsed, earnest, totally bananas kid-writing than a fully realized musical. If you think otherwise, you might be doing it wrong.

If you’ve read the internet lately, there’s a lot of hand-wringing ballyhooing out there about the so-called “Trophy Generation.” It’s a phrase designed to reduce millennials to the status of overgrown, entitled children: we earned our childhood trophies not for achievement, but for participation, and now we crave trophies like job satisfaction and affordable health insurance; we crave home ownership and a break on our student loan debts; we crave romantic partnership and meaning in our lives and reliable internet connectivity – and what’s more, we feel entitled to those trophies, actual merits notwithstanding.

There’s much to say about the fallacies of this argument – that this picture of lazy iPhone-addled twentysomethings lapping from our parents’ silver spoons is not remotely representative of non-white or lower-income millennials, for starters. Or that the income inequality that is so rampant in this country has plagued the members of my generation with financial burdens so patently unfair, so deeply unlike those faced by our parents. Or any number of millennial success stories that paint a picture, instead, of a generation more interested in improving the world than in their own personal financial gain.

And yet… I was one of those kids who went home with a trophy for participating in youth baseball – despite spending the majority of the games staring at clouds and braiding dandelions into chains in left field. Ditto ribbons for spelling bees that I didn’t win. My summers were spent curled into a window seat at the local library, motivated primarily by my love of storytelling – although winning coupons for a free Pizza Hut pizza for every dozen books I consumed wasn’t a bad deal to sweeten the bargain. In short – my reasonably happy, upper-middle-class childhood should have turned me into the type of narcissistic, entitled brat that my elders delight in maligning.

Instead, it turned me into the kind of person who works with kids.

And it turned me into the type of person who believes in a safe haven where participation, not achievement, should be celebrated.

Couple of things about this camp, before I tell you why I feel this way. I feel the need to say this upfront: these are not kids in financial need. My students come from the kind of families where parents can fork over seven hundred bucks in exchange for three weeks of acting games and arts + crafts. And I’m paid pretty well for the pleasure of walking into a classroom and, for the most part, being given the gift of their respect, no questions asked. That is a privilege, and I don’t pretend for a moment that my experiences mirror, in any way, the experiences of my friends who are full-time public school teachers, or those who teach in specialized learning environments. This is different. I get that.

But this camp isn’t school. It’s summer camp. And if any of you were ever summer camp kids, you remember why it was so special. It was a chance to forge a new identity for yourself, if you so chose. It was a place to try new things. To pretend to be a different person. To form bonds in a short period of time.

And if you’re the kind of kid who begs their parents to put you in summer theatre camp, chances are, you’re a total weirdo.

I mean that lovingly. I was a weirdo. I still am. My staff is a bunch of weirdos. The kids are a bunch of weirdos. You kind of can’t grow up to work in theatre without being the kind of kid who was picked last in gym class or shoved into a locker at least once or twice.

And if you grew up weird, you’re familiar with this core truth: the world can look pretty bleak for you if you don’t fit in easily.

I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I’m a perfect teacher. There are definitely moments where I know I have said the wrong thing, that I have snapped at the kid who can’t sit still, that I have allowed my frustrations at squirmy, unruly kid behaviors to percolate rather than just accepting them as things that squirmy, unruly kids just do. Hell, I’m not going to pretend that any of them will remember me later on in their lives. They see me for three weeks out of the year, a few hours a day at best. The odds that anything I say or do will become significant is a miniscule probability. I will disappear in their memory banks, and my unwavering pride and praise will vaporize faster than my own dusty childhood trophies and ribbons, now disintegrating at the bottom of some landfill. I fail daily, and I’m only any good at this job because I have the support of an amazing group of teachers I work with who are, frankly, all better at this than I am.

But here’s what I can do. I can write a play with the kids and help them perform in it, including their ideas, trying to showcase their talents. Even if the final outcome is, by outside standards, loopy kid nonsense. Where no one really gets to be the star.

And I can celebrate the victories of the kids who get up on stage and shine. That part is easy. That part hasn’t changed since I was a kid.

But what I can also do – what the model of this particular camp is built upon – is that I can also celebrate kids like Cindy, age fourteen, whom I saw quietly giving a pep talk to some of the younger kids before they went onstage. “You can do it,” I heard her whisper. “That big line? Just look me in the eyes. You’ll remember it.”

I can celebrate kids like Christian, age thirteen and unabashedly weird, who spent the entire last day of camp crying because he was sad to go back to school. I can celebrate Ariel, age eight, who snuggled up to him, threw her tiny arms around his midsection, and whispered, “My mom says it’s okay to cry. It doesn’t even have to mean that you are sad.”

I can celebrate the kids who make sure, on the first day, to find the new campers and ask if they want to sit with them at lunch. I can celebrate the kids who nudge the unruly ones and whisper, “We’re supposed to be paying attention.” I can celebrate Michael, age ten, who is saddled with a host of medical issues – including a lisp, a constant need to use the bathroom, and a propensity for picking his wedgie every ten seconds – who stood in front of the camp on talent show day and announced that he would be singing a Top 40 song by Pink – and then promptly forgot the words. The kind of nightmare fuel that had me rising out of my seat, wondering if I needed to intervene.

I can celebrate him for getting back on track – tuneless, lisping the whole time, picking his butt, his coke-bottle glasses sliding down his nose, perfectly imperfect and entirely beautiful. But I can also celebrate the audience full of kids who, not for one minute, laughed. Instead, they started to sing along until he found his place in the music. And then they clapped along, hands over heads, Just give me a reason, just a little bit’s enough – and watched as Michael’s grin enveloped his face, and he grabbed the microphone, and for one shining moment, looked just like a rockstar.

I can celebrate Rosalie, who spent three weeks looking as if she’d prefer to hide rather than be singled out alone, who on the last day stood up and said, in a voice shaking with emotion, “Look, the thing is, I don’t like me very much when I’m at school. But I like me here. And I love you guys.”

I can celebrate the fact that in this weirdo safe-haven, no one cares who the star is. They are here to learn about how to be an actor, how to memorize lines, how to move their bodies and use their voices and create and explore. But they’re also here to learn about compassion. They’re also here to learn about community. They are also here to learn how to be nice, to participate, to make friends. They are here to learn that they need to sit with the weird kids at lunch. They are here to learn that they are the weird kid, and that it’s okay.

I couldn’t care less that they aren’t performing in musicals. I couldn’t care less that most of them have never been in a school play. I couldn’t care less that not a performance goes by when someone doesn’t forget a line, or speaks too quietly, or messes up a movement sequence. I couldn’t care less that their plays don’t make a lot of sense.

I care that they’re good kids. I care that they have a place where they feel loved and supported. I care that they are brave enough to tackle their fears. I care that the atmosphere is devoid of negativity. I care because there’s plenty of time left for them to figure out that the world can be cruel and unfair. Frankly, they know this already. School is nothing if not cruel and unfair. Life is nothing if not cruel and unfair. I care that they’re learning that if they can create the right environment, it doesn’t have to be.

I care because I wish I had spent my summer creating the kind of environment where I wasn’t whispering with my friends about who was good and who was a lousy performer. I care because it took me a lot longer than it should have to figure out that none of it mattered. I care because I was a weird kid who sometimes felt better about myself by being mean to other weird kids. I care because I look back on that with regret.

I care because my generation is accused relentlessly of being coddled, of being immature, of being comprised of takers who just want everything that they might not deserve. I care because I can only imagine what charges will be leveled against these kids once they are grown enough to merit their own cranky thinkpieces from the members of my generation, looking at these damn entitled youths, wondering how they got to be the way they are.

I care because I want them to do better than me. I care because I want us all to do better by them.

I care because I’m a weirdo, and so are you. And the world might be a better place if we all just learned to sit with each other at lunch and sing along when someone forgets the words.

** All children’s names have been changed to protect the privacy of the youthful weird.*