I worked at a day camp when I was 19 or 20. I was the “Integrated Camp Counselor”, though I don’t know what part of my experience made them think I was qualified – a couple summers as live-in Mother’s help?
The idea was that rather than sending kids with different abilities or needs to segregated camps, they would have a summer camp experience along with the other kids in their neighbourhood. The integration aspect was something that everyone became involved in; the counselors, the kids, the bus driver.
There was no formal training for the counselors or the campers. A slim file came with each kid with special needs, often saying little more than “autistic” or “down’s syndrome“. Being the pre-Google era I would learn what those terms meant when the kids showed up and learn what was needed from the kids themselves. While this whole camp lives on in my memories, the person who made the biggest impact on me was Big T. She came with a slim file that said “retarded“, but she also came with a friend, Little N.
Big T was prone to violent outbursts and also to entertaining the crowds with bawdy, grown-up, vaudeville-style antics. She was not self-sufficient, and Little N, who got on and off the bus at the same stop, would pick up after her, rescue her lunch or her knapsack. Big T never noticed or acknowledged the help and I wondered if they were friends or if someone had told Little N, ‘now you look after Big T’ and she took it to heart as a responsibility. Little N was quiet and rarely spoke.
We had no goals to achieve with these kids, beyond having a good summer, and so the idea of integrating was a little vague. We all did the same activities and the other kids pitched in when they needed to. Though communication was not great with Big T, she and I were developing a special rapport. One day, relaxing after lunch under a tree, Big T came up and sat on my stomach. She then leaned over and picked up a rock the size of my head. The look in her eye meant business as she held it up ready to launch at my face.
My 13th and 14th summers were spent as a live-in Mother’s help. As a kid, I had the benefit of being exposed to a lot of different lifestyles, and this particular experience helped to shape me. My job was to care for an 18 month old and a 4 year old intermittently throughout the day and occasionally at night. I remember being amazed early in the relationship at the idea of just saying no. There was no yelling, no slapping. Nobody took it personally that the little guy kept throwing his food on the floor. They understood it as a learning experience for him as they kept saying, ‘no’, and by golly it was for me too – a lesson that stuck.
As I looked at Big T with her rock over my face, I knew that being afraid that she would do it would force her to. I knew that she would live up to whatever I was expecting from her. “T,” I said, “if that rock falls on my face it is going to hurt a lot. Put the rock down.” After a few repetitions, she launched the rock at the ground, an inch or so from my face. She got up with what could only be called a warning look, and stormed away. There were other, smaller challenges in getting to know Big T.
On her last day of camp we went swimming. Big T got rowdy on the bus and the bus driver scolded her and told her to sit down. Thwarted, she turned to pulling Little N’s hair. So there’s me with the “no”, “no”, “no”, but this time it was Little N who was bearing the brunt of it and as I became more desperate in my no’s, Big T became more insistent in her pulling. She wasn’t even looking at Little N, she was looking at me.
What I couldn’t think of at the moment, was that to Little N, it was probably just hair pulling, nothing more. For Big T however, it was so much more. Finally I reached across and pulled Big T’s hair, in a desperate ‘how do you like it’ maneuver, and she stopped immediately. Big tears welled up in her eyes as she looked at me, but they never fell. She looked straight ahead and closed up for the rest of the day. That was it. The trust was broken. I never saw her again.
And now here we are in this community-building effort, trying to reach out and integrate everyone, to find ways for each of us to leverage our strengths to be part of the community. And I think of Big T. And I think of the great patience it takes on the part of some and the courage and trust that it takes on the part of others.
Note to self: Don’t pull hair to make a point.