Is there a word for this kind of exhaustion? The kind that seeps into your bones and makes you speak in tongue-tied. I don’t know; but I survived. First week of summer camp down, and no serious injuries, no lost children, and (contrary to expectations) very little vomit. I’m now back in Tokyo, where the weather is relatively cool and the sleek Bamboo-Scandinavia of Tokyo Midtown (see below) is dragging me back to the 21st Century. Here’s my debrief.
(A note on safeguarding and privacy: I won’t use any names of children in my article, and sadly I also can’t use pictures of children taking part in activities. I hope to be able to upload some to the blog at the end of summer. For now, we’ll have to make do with the stunning scenery.)
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My camp team had nine first and second graders, ranging from six to eight years old. You could mostly guess at the identity of the older kids- they were less affectionate (or less clingy, depending on your perspective) and clearly wanted to be in charge of the others. It contained a spectrum of personalities, from headstrong leaders to happy-go-lucky social butterflies and vague, gentle daydreamers.
There’s an old, famous quote of dubious origin*: ‘give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’. I’m no child psychologist, but this seems more true than false to me. Watch a group of kids playing card games, fighting over seats and comparing big-bites for a week and you can see planted deep the roots of adult life. I’m not saying people don’t change- of course they do. But I could make a few moderately informed guesses about the futures of Team Rabbit. I’d love to meet them in thirty years and see if my intuitions were anywhere close to right.
The hardest thing about working with a group of juniors isn’t that they don’t do things for themselves. It’s that, without constant attention and encouragement, they undo whatever effort you’ve started. Moving the group from place to place safely required Boddhisatvaesque levels of focus and psychic energy. If I stopped instructing, praising, and cajoling for even ten seconds, or just briefly looked away, they would diffuse wispily, like a cloud of gas. Chasing one of them down at that point just meant losing others.
The same thing went for mealtime preparations. We issued each of the kids with camp passports, and made them bring water bottles to dinner. The thing is, while you were checking if one kid had filled his water bottle, another would run across the room, drop his, forget about it five seconds later, and then say he’d lost it. No seven year old ever seems to look for lost items- they just solemnly inform you that they are lost and that this is now your problem. Sometimes the offending item is on top of their bag, two metres away.
Sometimes when you’re getting ready they just take their clothes off and run around the room naked, laughing and shouting. Other times, they have a fight with their friends about dinner table seating arrangements, and then forget why they’re fighting when you ask them. And sometimes you find yourself saying truly insane things, things you thought you`d never say, such as ‘please stop screaming into the fan’ or ‘you just have to accept that your raincoat is gone, buddy’. I reflexively call everyone buddy now, including my managers, my parents and the guy who works at the internet cafe. I’m sorry. In fairness, a lot of this is very, very funny.
So working with juniors is no picnic. But what makes it worthwhile is the sense of brilliant, wondrous newness that these kids bring to the table. Most of them had never been to summer camp before. Many of them lived in the city suburbs, where swimming means the busy local pool and you can hide from the thunder indoors. It was kind of awesome to see them adapt to this new reality. One of my happiest moments of the week was convincing one of our resident daydreamers to stop clinging to my arm in the lake, and challenging him to a swimming race. By the end of the session, he’d gone from being a terrified swimmer to a semi-enthusiastic one, which is progress enough for me.
Team Rabbit all loved the campfire, a rare activity that united all of my team. I lost count of the number of times somebody asked me ‘yaki marshmallow is when?’** My team were mostly beginners at English and didn’t speak much, but they all spoke English at the campfire, if only to get their hands on some toastable sugar. Most of them caught their marshmallows on fire at some point, but they didn’t seem to mind.
And oh boy, did they love catching bugs. Ten-centimetre grasshoppers, beetles, butterflies- all of them were shoved in my face at some point or other. Perhaps because of its warm climate, Japan has a wide range of giant insects, some of which can be dangerous, but fortunately the kids stuck to catching the safe ones. As well as beautiful yellow butterflies and nervy grasshoppers, there are hornets and poisonous milipedes up in them thar Niigata mountains.
Homesickness was an ongoing struggle, especially for our youngest campers. I didn’t have either the Japanese or the inclination to ask, but I’m pretty sure some of these kids had never been away from mum and dad for five days before. They were pretty good, all things considered, and when they got on the climbing wall or in the lake, they tended to forget all about their inner crises. It’s in the interstitial spaces between actitivities that sadness is let loose. Actually, my number one take away from week one was that activities were relatively easy to manage. It was, almost without exception, the transitions which were the difficult bits- moving from one place to another, from sports to dinner, from wakefulness to sleep.
If I have one regret, it’s that the language barrier made it challenging for me to get to know the kids well. In theory, the camp is an English language environment, and when we were able to keep people quiet, it was possible to talk to the kids in English. But camp is a noisy place with a billion distractions, and my team’s English experience was pretty limited and their attention span measured out in miliseconds. I often found that I had to try Japanese if I wanted attention and an answer. You might expect that my Japanese has improved, but I think it’s actually got worse, because I’ve been dog-tired and keeping my sentences short and suitable for six-year-olds.
What camp means
I left this week like I left the last one- shattered, nervous as hell and still, somehow, excited. I just about coped, and I coped because in between the stress storms, I really did see young people discovering a new world around them. They don’t discover it in the same way that adults do, and they barely seem to notice the beauty of the place. But they absorb some of its energy, and leave with great memories and a little more confidence. Next time I’ll be working with third and fourth-graders (8-10 years old) which will be a whole new ballgame- perhaps a little more independence, a little more English ability, conflicts with other campers maybe a little harder to resolve. We’ll see how it goes- you’ll hear it here first.
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Because I can’t fill my blog with pictures of camp, I have something else to share with you. Last weekend in Tokyo, we visited the Mori Digital Art museum, another Team Lab project based out at Odaiba. We wandered through a hushed dreamworld, and drank green tea from glass bowls that grew flowers of light. It was the best thing I could have done the night before camp. I’ll leave you with some digital masterpieces.
‘Til next time,
From your correspondent in a cafe in Roppongi.
* It might have been Aristotle, in which case it’s a philosophical reflection on child development. Or it could have been Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, in which case it reads more like a comment on religious indoctrination. Or it might have been Voltaire taking the piss. That Voltaire…
** yaki means a few different things in Japanese. In this phrase, it means a skewer or stick.