Happy Campers

Milo has never had a successful summer camp experience. He has been asked to leave a traditional day camp and several arts focused camps because of his destructive temper or his tendency to run away. He has chosen not to finish two different nature camps because he didn’t feel safe or understood and he noisily refused to finish even one day at a lego robotics camp because he felt oppressed. Each time a camp fell apart I scrambled for child care, to get my money back and to pick up the pieces of Milo’s shattered self esteem.

Once while Milo and I were shopping in our local food co-op and he was wearing a t-shirt from one of the aborted day camps, a neighbor said to him, “Oh Milo, Did you go to Camp X?” Milo responded, “No, I failed at Camp X.” To which I said, probably a little too loudly, “No Buddy, Camp X failed you.”

Last summer by mid July I finally abandoned the idea of camp and found Matt the babysitter. He and Milo alternated between the pool, the park (when it wasn’t sweltering) the movie theater, the Wii and the ice cream parlor. Milo survived the summer with his soul intact, and his brain no more fractured and noisy than before. But it wasn’t an enriching season.

This summer has been some of the same. And a whole lot different. I am no longer working full time so when school ended I alternated with Milo between the pool, the ice cream parlor, the Wii, Apples to Apples with his sister, hiking in the woods with the dog and playdates.

And, I found a camp.

I’m not inclined to advertise a particular company here on this blog, but I’m impressed with IDtech camps and grateful to how well they have accommodated Milo so. . .here comes a plug. Idtech offers overnight and day camps in all kinds of geeky pursuits from Minecraft to Java to robotics to game design. It’s run with as much attention to the camp part as to the tech part. ┬áThere are nicknames, cheers, rituals to acknowledge community and friendship, emotional and spiritual growth. ┬áThe counselors are big, happy Geeks, who love the pursuit and the kids.

This is our second week. Here’s how it works: The camp is held at the large State University in our town. The classrooms are in a dorm. They leave the dorm every day to walk to a cafeteria for lunch and to go outside for an hour and play a traditional game like capture the flag. I sit in a small social room down a long hallway from Milo’s classroom. There’s Wifi. I have my phone, computer and a stack of freelance work. I am tethered to Milo’s teacher via walkie-talkie. Sometimes I don’t see Milo except for lunch when I go with him to the cafeteria and lurk at a table near his, eating my turkey sandwich and watching him with his new friends.

Sometimes my walkie-talkie goes off, “Milo on his way. Upset.”

I wait. I swallow hard. The tremor in my left hand flares. Milo arrives crying, flings himself on the couch and describes his ineptitude in drastic terms. “I can’t even build a robot. I’m an idiot. I told you I should die.”

Or, Milo arrives furious, pounds on the couch, kicks the door and the wall and calls the teacher “evil.” I touch him if he’ll let me. I give him gum or a moon pie or ice water. I sit and wait.

He might recover quickly and go back to face his frustration. He might refuse to go back, or refuse to eat lunch. He may be cajoled into eating lunch but spend the walk to the cafeteria describing how he’s gonna have to pull his own arms off and leave them in the trash can because his fingers are so useless.

The genius of this situation is that the ugliness happens with me and no one else, so the teachers and other kids never have to change their opinions of him. He doesn’t become the freak or the hot-button-loose-cannon-stay-away-from-that-kid kid.

However, he is the boy whose mother comes to camp every day, all day. He is the boy whose mother shows up to hand him gum and ice water and walk with him to lunch and back. He is that boy.

But he has learned the cheers and performs them with gusto. And during “shout-out”, at the end of the day, when they compliment each other, his name comes up frequently, and not just from the lips of the grown ups but from the other kids.

So, camp accomplished.

And the cost? It’s a fortune. In dollars. And in my time and my attention. It’s my whole day, all day, for 5 straight days. I am hostage to his inability to go to camp without me. I sit in the room I call my “office” and I read and think through some mundane stuff. I plan his sister’s bat mitzvah and manage our family life. But there is the constant threat of interruption, violent, terrified, painful interruption. I don’t relax. I don’t go deep inside my own work and write, or parse or decipher or dream.

Does the cost to me mitigate Milo’s success at camp?