My focus shifts with every movement I make. My eyes rarely fix on any one thing, and if they do, they are constantly scanning that thing. My mind works in a similar fashion in that respect -- it takes in an idea and scans it, turns it around and checks it out from other angles. It pauses briefly to admire certain angles, but usually shifts again, imagines ideas dressed in other shadows, other materials and textures. My mind juxtaposes ideas upon ideas -- a jumbled mess of disciplines piled high. What would the Mona Lisa be like in a bathroom? In a strip club? On the interstate?
Right now my focus is on informal and experiential education. What do we learn outside the classroom?
Specifically, I'm paused on camp experience. What do we learn when we're on a canoe trip with four kids, or in a base camp community? What problems do we solve? What facts do we learn? What structures do we create?
I've been involved in such a setting since 1992. The camp I'm focusing my energies on continues to attract me for the problems it poses each year, and for the results it offers. Each June, I drive three days to Maine to an empty camp. The buildings are filled with canoes and boarded up; the docks are stacked on shore, and the the canvas platform tents are rolled up. For ten days, a crew of young men drift in to be counselors, and they unpack the buildings, unboard the windows, set up tents, and put in docks. We rebuild tent platforms that the winter snow and fallen trees have damaged. We re-shingle buildings. We do things that many of them have never done before. There's very little lecture, and yet they figure it out. They succeed at things they've never done before. During that process, they also attend more formal classes on how the camp works, and how it's worked since 1921. They work together to build the camp each summer and are part of it-- it's their place. They learn together how to avoid disasters and how to react to the sorts of accidents that happen in the woods. They learn first aid and CPR, they learn camping skills, leadership skills, cooking skills -- the stuff they need in order to be a counselor. But of course, they don't learn everything they need to know. We can't teach them how to deal with every homesick kid, or really even with any homesick kid. That's something they'll figure out when they have to, and most likely they'll have to.
When the kids arrive, we're generally ready -- maybe not prepared, we don't have it all figured out, but we have an idea, and more importantly, we have a trusted support structure of guys we've worked with to build the place. We meet every night we're in camp to go over what happened, and what's to expect the next day. We share stories of our interactions with the kids, how we handled situations and with what degree of success.
For me, the love of this is twofold. First and foremost, I get to interact with people who are constantly being challenged -- whether by kids or by each other, by a difficult hike or hard day of paddling, or by a rain that comes just as the dinner fire is being built, or the realization that the tent was left at a portage a few miles back. We plan the trips of course, but things happen along the way that force us to react in creative ways. Then the next trip we incorporate that experience into our planning. In a few weeks the most deliberate of people have learned to relax and live in the flow of the camping experience. At the same time, our consciousness shifts from MTV, gameboys, CNN, ESPN, and rampant consumerism to the rhythm of the woods and water. Our energies adjust to that rhythm and our focuses zoom in on the interpersonal growth of the group -- kids and counselors.
The second part, for me, is the diversity of tasks that need attending to. We need to feed 70, make sure that the plumbing works, that the canoes and tents don't leak, that kids and counselors get a variety of trips, stay safe, and bring the supplies they need. When they're out on trips we take the trash to the dump, really clean the toilets, repair whatever they broke, and start planning trips and activities for the next week -- with contingency plans for rain and adjustments for kids who didn't get along on the previous trip. Or maybe even design and build a woodshed. I'm a generalist there. It feels good.
It's a big word, and one that seems to still be in the midst of finding a definition. "Definition" may not be the best word -- it may be a word of a past way of looking at the world, where things are "definite" and meanings are fixed. I don't think I subscribe to that world anymore.