Life on the Edge

By Janine Banks. Published in Grace Chapman’s S.S.H.E.D., summer issue 22, 2000

The lights are dimmed in the big rustically comfortable lodge and the dining tables and chairs are all folded and stacked up one end of the long room. More than a hundred teenagers and the eighteen staff are also all stacked closely together silently listening and watching Sara play the mbira, a Zimbabwean finger piano inside a sound box. The beautiful melodies wind and pulse around and around in the intense and electric atmosphere, and then the music finishes and the room is filled with loud cheering and clapping. The MC for the talent show takes Sara’s place and announces the next performer.

There is more clapping and cheering and encouraging calls from the audience as a tall, heavy-set boy with very short, bleached hair and a guitar pulls up a chair and sings his own satirical song about being a sensitive new-age guy. This is really very funny, with the usual shadows of truth underlying the message, and everyone is soon laughing. Zen is part of a band back in southern California, called False Pride. Three of the four members are at camp this week and later in the week they perform together for us, complete with a tiny photo of their missing member! They, too, maintain the impressive standards of most of the performers at the talent shows held almost every night straight after dinner clean-up at the annual Not Back to School Camp organized by Grace Llewellyn at Camp Myrtlewood in southern Oregon in the USA.

Everyone is encouraged to participate in the talent show but it is also totally voluntary. Each day a new sheet is pinned up for anyone who wants to perform to write up their name. This helps the various MC’s as well who are also volunteers. Staff are also included in the expectation that they will perform, and many do. While some performances are basically silly ones designed to just humour, the high quality of most of the entertainers is a tribute to unschoolers whose ability to use their time effectively on what they love shines in the performing arts arena. Diversity was another feature of the talent shows. We heard a huge range of singing styles and musical instruments, many different dancing styles ranging from flamenco to the lindy-hop to Grace Llewellyn’s stunning belly dance. There were moving poetry and journal readings and, for me, the star attraction was Kyla, graceful on the makeshift trapeze hung on the entrance poles of Camp Myrtlewood, out under the moon, to the mellow singing of Anna’s cello.

Physically the camp setting is beautiful. Set along a tree-lined creek are the various camp buildings, the numerous dormitory huts such as Dogwood, Hemlock and Laurel, the bathrooms, and the big lodge that includes the kitchen and huge dining area, as well as a more intimately sized and decorated lounge room with an open fireplace and both a piano and an organ. There is a huge open sports field on the level ground surrounded on all sides by tall trees that march up the surrounding ridges and hillsides, where good hiking trails are to be found. Further up the creek is a swimming hole, a popular spot on the warm days.

I was one of the first out of bed every morning early enough to have the sports field to myself to practice my yoga. In the first two days I was joined by a few campers, but they generally kept very late hours which meant the camp was quiet for the few hours just before breakfast every day! The lights were on in the kitchen where the breakfast cooks were busy. I really enjoyed this very peaceful time with just the trees, sky, and my yoga, except for the occasional snore from the campers who chose to sleep out under the stars! This kept me centered and relaxed to enjoy and deal with the whirl of activity and excitement and cooking that filled the rest of the day.

For the half hour before the gong rang out for breakfast, the lodge slowly came to life. The foosball table just outside the door is one of the popular sots, and remains a busy place for the whole day. One morning early I even saw someone sleeping under it! Near the end of the week one of the campers organized a foosball tournament which continued until the winners played the deciding game at 3.30am in the morning!

Inside the lodge the dining tables are set up again and the hungry teenagers start queuing up for breakfast and check-in. Check-in happens morning and evening to ensure that this large number of teens are all accounted for.

All the excellent meals are organic vegetarian food with everyone’s special needs catered for. After breakfast and clean-up, there is always singing together, led mostly by Grace and Taber but with a lot of help from campers, and the morning meeting with announcements for the day. This was followed by advisor group get-togethers and then all the workshops or whatever you felt like or needed to do.

I found the workshop choices both amazing and frustrating as there were always several attractive options to choose from. The workshops were presented by both campers and staff and were basically a sharing of current passions or learning experiences. This made for an extremely eclectic range of learning activities every day. The variety reflected the needs and interests of teens, with a balancing input from staff. Physical things included many different dance styles and sports, massage, yoga, and wilderness awareness and survival. The range of creative activities included beading, toymaking, hair colouring, beret knitting and henna art. Personal growth workshops ranged from journal and poetry writing and performing, to the nuts and bolts of activism, to relationshops and solo travel. Intellectual pursuits included literature discussions, creating magazines, and speaking Shakespeare. Of course, there are no real categories, nothing fits neatly in one box, as creative and intellectual and personal growth and physical are all entwined. I mention them only to highlight the diversity that was presented by them to meet their needs. As a dinner cook I spent every afternoon in the kitchen but I did manage to fit in some workshops which I thoroughly enjoyed. Jessie taught us some Dances of Universal Peace which I found very beautiful, simple circle dances performed to chants taken from the world wide spiritual traditions. Taber led a discussion on radical intimacy based on Brad Blanton’s book, Radical Honesty, and Biko described his very alternative lifestyle in a sharing community in Hawaii, both fascinating subjects. Another interesting, but purely intellectual, workshop for me was the very popular freight train hopping in America. Ian, an experienced train hopper, emphasized safety first. All of his information is also available in a book of the same name, and there is also a freight train hoppers newsletter available! A hands on healing group resulted from the reiki workshop and met every day for someone’s benefit.

Although the camp has a strong daily structure, there is still plenty of time, choice and space to just hang out when you want to and do lots of socializing. And this seems to be an important role of the camp for the unschoolers who come every year. To quote Grace from The Fifth Annual Not Back to School Camp 2000 Senior Staff Handbook writing about Why we are doing this?

I think it is perfectly fine for some people to come and basically just be social—social is important, at any age, but perhaps especially for teenagers, and especially unschooling teenagers, who in their daily lives are misunderstood, considered weird, and who may feel unaccepted and certainly isolated. Some of these kids’ parents don’t even support or understand their educational paths. So I think it’s fine for people to “just” be social—our task there is to encourage and role-model authentic, open, somewhat risk-taking, brave, fun, meaningful interaction rather than shallow/petty interaction.

And this sociability is a hallmark of the camp. Right from the start a strong sense of community is promoted with “old hands” leading singing on the buses on the way to camp. An introductory circle welcomes everyone and introduces them to their group and advisor. These groups of about eleven or twelve met every day to share how the camp was going for them, play games together and generally create a safe supportive environment for everyone. These smaller groups make such big camps more inclusive for new or shy people, by making some faces familiar immediately, and group leaders can answer questions and allay uncertainties.

A community spirit is also encouraged through out the daily program with the camp sing-alongs and discussions, the ongoing nature of some of the workshops, the nightly talent show and other evening activities devised by various veteran campers, the “Prom”, the chore roster that everyone must complete throughout the week and the Power Shuffle, a heart-opening and sharing exercise that reveals we are all human. The camp became a big “family” for the week with a great feeling of love and tolerance and encouragement. (actually that camp became known as the “siblings camp” as so many families were represented by more than one person.)

But the last morning with loading buses and saying farewells might be the end of the camp at Myrtle Creek, but it is not the end of the camp community and socializing, as I have discovered with my four teenagers. With the aid of the internet and snail mail and the kids themselves traveling around the countryside, the whole camp community can continue which is obviously important for them. They have a web site, chat lines, and a mail list set up whereby some of them communicate daily with their friends. I heard of several camper Halloween parties that were held around the country. We have had campers to stay and Alex is off to Minnesota for a couple of weeks to work with campers on a campers’ Christmas tree farm.

For the first couple of weeks we were home, my four continued to live, dream and talk camp the whole time. They spent every spare moment reading their camp directory (a precious item with all the campers for 2000 listed, with photos and addresses and many autographed messages!), writing letters or replying to emails from fellow campers, updating their email address list from the directory and planning how they can come back to both sessions of NBTSC next year! Although we have all come back down to earth again, the intense competition for our computer is stimulated by this enormous activity on the email and chat lines.

This has been a hard article to write as it has brought on an intense ache to be back at camp singing with everyone or cooking up a storm in the kitchen with my wonderful fellow cooks. Although I can’t say exactly why, I found NBTSC very special. Chatting with another staffer from NYC last night, we were trying to identify this special quality and Jessica suggested it was the mix of wonderful people. Today I am inclined to agree but with the addition of the focus of the camp, that of promoting the potential of all these unique people through unschooling. A quote from modern dance pioneer Martha Graham that Grace uses to encourage everyone to participate in the talent show is especially appropriate here, but I think it speaks volumes about the path of the unschooler and the success of the NBTSC:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost, the world will not have it.

So I guess the energy of 130 unblocked unschoolers bursting forth at camp is what made it so special. Hope I get to another Not Back to School Camp. Love from Janine