If I knew back then what I knew now... it would be a much shorter and less interesting life. We learn through experience, not being given the answers.
I wish I would’ve sat by the fire pit a little longer holding their hands and singing songs of freedom until the last glowing ember burned out. I find myself saudade throughout the day, yearning to run back to that environment where I felt safe in all senses of the word. It feels like the last two months were just a dream. Every morning since I’ve left Maine I can’t help but to contemplate on how I've erupted from such a peaceful sleep. I find myself once again shaking at my nerves to be myself in America during 2020.
This year of clarity has brought a certain energy that may be too heavy for it to matter all at once.
As the world started to crumble during the first few months, we were forced to sit with some uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. It was time to regain a sense of individuality outside of the working world. It was time to get a piece of mind. It was time to take time for what we consider essential to our lives. I can’t remember when every day started to feel like the same day but I know when I became tired of it. What felt like vacation with routine self care gradually turned into long loathing sessions in the bathroom as I stared soulless in the mirror.
Viral culture has shined a light on the Black American reality and has made it trending for someone to fight for our right. Yet, we have been weeping since before we were born. As children we (Black people) were told the history of our oppression with ghost stories of freeman hung from trees, tricked out of their lives. We’ve been screaming in sweat over dead babies in the streets because all of our faces look the same. Negroes, the antagonist, products of white guilt. Quarantine isolated Black anguish, put our fate on display, and still denied our truth. It’s not about the bullets because any man can kill a man. It’s the century long conditioned prejudice and power structures that reinforce, capitalize, and support the behavior.
Turn off the television and unplug from the timeline, it couldn’t be good for anyone’s mental health to consume such negative information. We already worried for our physical health. Human rights will forever be a political debate.
The noise has become overwhelming. I wish I could be star gazing once more, aweing the milkyway in silence. A privilege, undoubtably.
Thank goodness no one could see my cracking smile behind a polyester Camp Winnebago mask. The textured logo sticking to my lips reminded me of those splendid two months where my struggles were not my own to carry.
Summer camp was never a thought that crossed my mind because the finances were never a part of my parents’ budget. It was entertaining to watch the ‘Parent Trap’ but camp was not a feasible reality for me.
At 24 years old I attended my first camp amidst the COVID pandemic working as a youth development professional. I was as skeptical as you are reading this, but I stand by my word when I say that Fayette Maine was the safest place for me to be this summer. For the benefit of my physical and mental health, taking this leap of faith was more than I knew I needed.
The destination of this journey being an all boys camp was unnerving. I prayed and pleaded that I wasn’t the only woman among the staff. I wanted to be defensive for all the wrong reasons.
I didn’t want to trust men.
I didn’t trust them to be respectful of boundaries, understand social cues, or control impulsions. I would not give anyone, especially a man, the benefit of the doubt because I subconsciously felt inferior. I initially deemed the male psyche as incomprehensible. They didn’t have real emotions, deep thoughts, or selfless aspirations in life.
Why did I agree to this opportunity? I had to challenge my perspective. These ideals were made of bad experiences but they were not the truth.
The eclectic community of alumni, vagabonds, seasoned youth development professionals, and courageous (or crazy) folk alike gathered in the counsel ring at camp Winnebago as a true representation of diversity. Vibrant, outspoken, nurturing individuals from varying demographics created a space that made each person feel cared for at an acceptable social distance.
The visionaries of this COVID free summer were program director, Andy Lilienthal, Dr. Laura Blaisdell, and head counselor EJ Kerwin. We tested, retested, masked, washed, sanitized and distanced in such an efficient way that makes me weary of others’ standard of safety procedures. It was not only Dr. Blaisdell’s health staff’s responsibility to keep us safe but the integrity to hold ourselves and others accountable for practicing the health guidelines.
“The values of Winnebago are ones that are applicable in everyday life, not just a camp setting,” I remember Andy saying. However, I didn’t fully grasp until typing that last sentence.
All of these principles were crucial to manifest the COVID free summer we intended and each of them were challenged.
Our story lines were just as diverse as we were.
There were 6 women and 30+ men among counselors shepherding 150 kids. We were cared for by a resilient 5-person health staff. We were fed by a creative kitchen crew and protected by a diligent maintenance team. I am thankful for each and every one of them.
For 8 weeks we lived in this parallel society, disconnected from technology, and in-tune with nature. The first 14 days of quarantined staff training were grouped sessions on open fields. We de-compressed from quarantining at home. We evaluated our mental state while learning how to create a safe and invigorating environment for each other and the campers. We studied the difference between being a teacher and a facilitator. As a staff we even unpacked interpersonal relationships and the idea of toxic masculinity.
It was encouraged to challenge problematic behavior, which we dived into head first by debating the responsibilities of adolescent boys - controlling their urges and emotions. The female staff found it paradoxical to be labeled as distractions yet under-represented in an environment that gives boys the capacity to grow into respectable individuals and engage in healthy social interactions. As women we were responsible for policing ourselves to minimize uncomfortable conversations or situations. Bringing this inconsistent way of thinking to the attention of fellow male staff, they didn’t hesitate to put forth the effort to unlearn this ettiquette. We would sit for long periods of time outside of workshop sessions, picking each others’ brain.
Topics included but were not limited to:
Can women and men be in platonic relationships?
Do women have the same authoritative presence as men?
Are women indeed distractions or seen as competition in a male-dominated environment?
In a way it was absurd to even question our capabilities but the answers weren’t apparent, possibly due to the lack of interaction between men and women.
Not to complain but masculine energy is heavy. I wondered midsummer why it was so hard to wake up or find my momentum for the day compared to other male counselors. The women of Winnebago learned to cater to the emotional needs of young men all day, teach classes, carry 50 pounds of laundry 10 minutes back to our sleeping quarters in the dead of night, all while keeping our shirts on in the sweltering heat.
It was necessary to discuss these topics being in a male-dominant environment but imperative to practice our preaching throughout the summer.
Although we were in a bubble, it was no excuse to disregard the social issues unraveling in the outside world as well. When I came to camp I felt exhausted defending my experience as a Black woman. Campers and counselors alike were passionate about social change. Through song, speech, and performance - members of the Winnebago community supported and empathized with struggles of minorities especially Black and brown people. The best thing about camp is that every voice is given the platform to be heard. This summer I felt seen and heard. I was apprehensive of kids’ comprehension on social justice but its not until you get older that concepts become harder to understand. There was a moment I had with one of my campers where he was empathetic towards someone because he felt the person was being discriminated against. The camp was broken into divisions and I supervised campers that were 10 years old. Now if he can understand how to treat everyone with the same respect, why can’t adults?
My personal goal for the summer was to be a strong role model and representative of my community. My method of accomplishing this was to be involved and prepared to learn from everyone.
You cannot represent where you are not present.
I watched as many volleyball games as I played. I gave my boys manicures and porch side singalongs. The campers and I crafted keepsakes while discussing music and the current state of the country. They truly felt like my little brothers by the time we said goodbye that misty Sunday morning in August. I was able to observe how they interacted with each other and expressed their emotions on a deeper level. Their ability to push their boundaries spoke volumes. There were many teachable moments where I didn’t have to intervene. Anger was not a boy’s primary emotion. They were sad, regretful, and even anxious. I would like to think the plethora of sports helped in dispelling some of that pent up energy. I recall a few times during yoga where the boys said they felt at peace.
I couldn’t be more grateful to have met every person brave enough to come to Maine this particular summer. This experience was a privilege.
I am thankful to Winnebago for giving me the space to unravel and heal. It provided me the opportunity to be impacted as well as influence others. I broke out of my shell and become more outspoken in two months than I have during my entire college career. Before camp I never had to confront my identity as a woman but I’m proud of those challenges. I had never felt justified in my anguish as a Black American until I came to camp.
Looking at this hazy night sky at home brings fond memories of when I could see every constellation clearly under the northeastern heavens.