An Open Letter to the Summer Camp that Broke my Heart

An Open Letter to the Summer Camp that Broke my Heart

Dear TRIO,

I’m writing to ask why I was not hired for the summer of 2016.

Is it because I refused to make the kids do pushups, instead taking the time to patiently explain camp policies and values?

Is it because I connected with the queer kids on a level no one else could, and was able to talk with them about their coming out, dysfunctional families, fractured support systems, and questions about their gender/sexual identities?

Is it because when one of the girls was in danger of harming herself, I was the one her friends told when asking for help?

Is it because I spent two hours of one evening answering one student’s fascinated questions about the lgbtq community, saying things some of the other RAs in the room didn’t even know about?

Is it because I made food for the kids and helped them out in the kitchen?

Is it because I made coconut ice cream for the vegan student when all the other students got ice cream?

Is it because every Wednesday and Friday I made sure there was a vegetarian option for the orthodox Catholics who couldn’t eat meat on those days?

Is it because after an argument with one of the girls about race and labelling others, I told her it was okay to be angry and walked with her as she explained herself and cried?

Is it because I told the kids that as RAs we were not infallible, and that we were learning from them as well?

Is it because I made boob jokes with the high school senior who later wrote to me thanking me for being the older sister she never had?

Is it because I had fascinating, productive conversations about gender theory with the philosopher kid no one could stand?

Is it because when the large, scary-tempered middle schooler got yelled at for not doing his homework, I took him aside afterward to thank him for reaching out and apologizing that I hadn’t helped him sooner?

Is it because when one of the girls showed signs of depression, I talked to her to find out what was wrong?

Is it because I asked one of our Latina girls to teach me phrases in her language?

Is it because I listened to the annoying kid’s rants in my class and thanked him for his contributions, seeing the big grin on his face when he heard those words from me?

Is it because I sat through a Batman marathon with the two kids that wanted to because no one else would?

Is it because on my days off I continued to plan activities with my kids and tell them I would be there to do things when they asked?

Is it because when one girl forgot her money, I secretly bought the gem stone she’d been admiring to surprise her with later?

Is it because I listened to all the random thoughts of the sweet little boy the teacher ignored?

Is it because I explained to the girls no one likes what they were doing wrong, and continued to face their wrath at every step despite the fact that they showed that they hated me?

Is it because I hosted a hair dye party in my room when my queer kids initiated me into their peculiar brand of punk culture?

Is it because I listened to the boy with Asperger’s as he ranted or looked into the tiniest of things when most of the others ignored him or tried to get rid of him?

Is it because I listened to the white ghetto girl who didn’t know shit about diversity, but who still had things to say and needed someone to tell her what she missed?

Is it because I volunteered to teach my class even after being told I could not be paid for it?

Is it because I cried in front of the kids because I was beyond not showing them I was human?

I’m not dumb, I know none of these are reasons. But maybe when you read them, you’ll understand what you lost when you fired me.

I know you probably fired me because last summer I was struggling with depression, self-loathing, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. It’s probably because I needed a little extra support from my supervisors to get me through a week. It’s probably because I was honest with the kids and told them I’d been through a breakup and when my uncle died. Or maybe it’s because of my gender identity, and that’s why you can’t tell me about it.

Or it’s for other reasons I don’t know, which apparently are not worth telling me so I can grow from them.

I hope the first day of training goes well; I hope the new RAs get along with the old ones, and everyone has a chance to learn and tell their story. I hope you all have a fantastic summer–and even if it doesn’t sound like it, I mean that sincerely.

Because who could spend a summer with those kids and not chalk it up with the best days of their life?

You’re never going to read this letter, because it wouldn’t do any good if I sent it. But I hope at some point you reflect on the person you rejected and wonder what it would have been like if you’d kept them.

Because every hour of every day this summer I’m going to think of those kids. I’m going to wonder what they’re doing and ache over the conversations and experiences I’m missing.

Have a great summer. Tell the kids I said hi. If they ask, I’ll leave it up to you to explain why I couldn’t come back.

500 characters or less

Describing my passion in text while applying for still more jobs. Justifying my passion. Trying to figure out how I stand out.

Who else from my trip still talks, a year later, to that kid from South Dakota who admitted to self harm and suicidal thoughts?

Who else noticed the red flags and drew the supervisors’ attention to the girl who otherwise may have suffered without resources?

Who else gets through to the queer kids in a way that they understand and appreciate because I accepted each part of them openly, celebrating each facet of their expression?

Who else recognizes the tiny subtle signs of mental illness, emotional abuse, low self-esteem, self loathing, in the quiet kids, the ones who are not overt “troublemakers,” but who sit on the sidelines, or interact casually, but who hold back in the tiniest of ways, in ways that most people either don’t see or choose not?

Who else sees the flaws in the entire system surrounding child rearing and fights to uproot the ideology that children are the property of caregivers, that they are a chore, that they are a challenge to be overcome?

Who else sees the massive importance in the small things they express, the tiny details of their personhood?

Hopefully everyone. Hopefully every single person that applies, that in any way interacts with a child, has all of this and more.
Hopefully I have these, as I feel I do, and hopefully they are as beneficial as I feel they are.

I’ve seen the evidence of my positive influence on the kids I work with. But it’s almost impossible to express that. Time after time potential employers seem not to believe me. For the first time since I started writing, my words are failing me.
Something like this can’t be expressed, but only shown, and in a field where I myself barely understand the impact of my work, how can I possibly show it in the fifteen minutes or 500 characters I’m allowed?

My Struggle

All the other camps I want to apply to are either full-time off campus positions (which I can’t take if I want to be a teacher for TRIO, and I want to maintain any connection to my kids that I am allowed) or already fully staffed and no longer accepting apps, or have values that are so drastically different from mine that I would not feel comfortable or safe in that environment. I know there are a lot worse things that could be happening to me right now and for the most part I am a very lucky person. But I can’t help but feel discouraged and undervalued. My kids are my life. I thought I was doing well enough that people could see that. Is it just that my methods or mentoring are so bizarre to people they can’t trust me in that role? Is going out of my way to empathize and understand those that I work with so uncalled for? Is taking time to have extra conversations with the ones that are usually ignored really that horrible? Is disagreeing with what my co-workers say and do and trying to have a constructive conversation about that an instant fail? I know I had my off days where I got short with a kid or a co-worker, but doesn’t everyone have those? Why aren’t I allowed that? Just as my self esteem was beginning to blossom I get shot down again because my philosophy on working with kids isn’t exactly the same as theirs. I’m blocked from the Pine Ridge trip because of stupid politics and someone who seemed bound and determined to bring me down by targeting the thing that was most important to me–my work with kids. I was prevented from even applying to CESA 6 and their Youth Mentor Program because my fucking anxiety won’t allow me to be a safe driver. I can’t do TRIO because of “something to do with group dynamics” and a few remarks from kids about me picking favorites when the majority of their comments were positive, saying I was nice and friendly and interesting and even logical. Logical! Do you have any idea what that means to me after years and years of being written off as an emotional nobody with nothing valuable or important to say? At least one kid out their respected the fact that I took time to explain things and went about doing things in a way that made sense to me (and them too apparently).
And now I can’t do any other summer camp that’s come my way, because I missed app deadlines because TRIO took their sweet time letting me know they didn’t want me back, or because I disagree with the mission of the camp, or because choosing that camp would force me to choose between it and maintaining what little connection I still have with the kids who I promised would see me again.
I know that I’m young. I know I’m still learning. I know I have room to improve. I know that, for the most part, I have nothing to complain about.
But I’ve only recently figured out what is most important to me. I’ve only recently begun to take action on it, get myself out there, make myself known. And I am being blocked again and again for reasons that I don’t understand or agree with.
I’m not unused to this. I grew up surrounded by people who loved to shoot me down. Who told me I could do whatever I wanted and then laughed at me whenever I did what I wanted, or showed any semblance of passion or talent.
I guess the difference now is that I’m not going to let stupid petty people get in my way. I’m going to keep fucking trying. Because I might not have the confidence to believe in myself but fuck anybody who thinks I don’t love my kids more than anything else in the world, and fuck anybody who thinks I would ever, EVER give up on them. I won’t be shot down, I won’t be shoved aside, I won’t be disregard or laughed at without fighting back. I study this shit. I know it’s hard on kids to lose a mentor figure even if all that figure was is a familiar face. Let alone a trusted friend, role model or support, which I know I was to at least some of them.
People tell me that it will all make sense some day. They say that this is all a strength test and I will come through better for it in the end. But having started with so little confidence, so little strength, and sop little support, I am constantly afraid that I may physically be unable to come through at all. Things that seem like small obstacles to other people can seem like insurmountable challenges to me, because I have so little experience to go off of. I have only recently discovered my sense of self. There’s not a lot of me that I can carry around or save when things go wrong. I’ve had to start over so many times in the past three years after doing the exact same things day in and day out for seventeen years. I don’t understand life. People terrify me. Relationships terrify me. The future terrifies me. I wonder if I am capable, emotionally, physically, to continue with anything I do. If I am capable of actually being. I let people walk over me constantly. I let people take advantage of me. I let them think I am fine, I am okay, I don’t care, go ahead, you’re more important than I am. And they believe me. I let them think it does not bother me that the things that are most important to me are taken away. That it’s okay for them to define me as something that I am not, as someone who I am not. To pass me off as unimportant. Because guess what? I believe them.
I want to keep going. I want to keep trying. I want to keep fighting. I want to say FUCK YOU to anything and everything that gets in my way. If I don’t have me kids, I feel like I won’t have anything. They are my purpose ad my life.
But I’m scared. I’m scared if I can’t. I’m scared if the day comes and I no longer want to. I’m scared if I lose my support. I’m scared if everything I believe in once again falls apart and leaves me to deal with the pieces. I know that a lot of people have gone through so much worse than I have. I feel petty and stupid even complaining about this. But I am small. I came in here with nothing to go on. I had no self concept except this image of a horrible, selfish, stupid, worthless person. A person with nowhere to go.
But now I’ve found where I want to go. I want to say that nothing can stop me now and these obstacles are just roadblocks that I can overcome. But I’m not sure. I’ve been wrong before. It’s hard for me to remember a time when I was right.

The End

The kids are gone. My coworkers are preparing to move out. The program is over and I am left with memories of what has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve had the privilege of being part of.
I love the kids I met this summer; so many of them found their way into my heart and will never leave, even if we don’t see each other again. Working as their RA showed me a lot about what life is like for their generation now and how they cope–and just what kinds of lives these children lead; the struggles they face and the obstacles they overcome. Working as a teacher for one of their classes, I learned more about what is expected of our students and what our students expect from school. I gained confidence in presenting material I’d collected myself, and I learned methods of facilitating respectful and engaging debate. And as the students’ friend, I learned more about being a person. I learned what it’s like to be seen as a role model, as someone who’s seen more of the world than you and can help you through it. I learned what it’s like to be seen as an equal, to be sought out for a good time or a good talk. I learned what it’s like to be looked down on by someone younger than me, to be seen as a nuisance and to have my work go unappreciated. I learned methods of fostering positive relationships and ground rules for a safe and respectful living environment. I learned that there’s no such thing as an off day when you’ve made an emotional investment in something or someone. At any moment a dynamic can change, an incident can spring out of the blue, a situation can prove to be to much for someone to handle–and you have to be ready for it. There’s no turning away when a child depends on you for support. I can’t imagine what that would feel like.
Or maybe I can. But just from the other perspective.
This year I started working with kids more as I’ve explored the option of a career in youth development or advocacy. And as I’ve done so I’ve started to look back on my own childhood and how it impacts me to this day. I saw a quote on Tumblr once–“Be the person you needed when you were a kid.” As soon as I saw that I knew that was what I needed to do in order to feel complete. The mark I make in this world, if anything at all, at the very least must be this.
Working in this program, I started to wonder how my childhood would have been different if I’d been in a program like TRIO. I feel like I could have used the support, the social experience, the adventure of being thrust into a strange environment and taken to so many new places.
That didn’t happen to me, though. Instead, I got to work here. I got to fill the role I felt I might have needed. I got to help kids have an experience I never had.
One if my kids wrote me a letter before she left, and among other things she said she wanted to thank me for teaching her that it was okay to be childish sometimes. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re compelled to grow up too soon. She was the oldest in her family and mature beyond her years, already taking charge of her life in a way some have the luxury of putting off a few years. The most touching thing for me was to know I had given her some space to step back and be a kid again. To know that responsibilities don’t automatically take the fun out of life. Especially as this is something that I struggle with myself. If she got that from me, I must be getting better at knowing it for myself as well.
And if I gave her those moments where she felt like she could be childish sometimes, then I have already done for one person what that Tumblr quote requested.
The most important thing to me is that we let kids be who they are. Find their identities and let that shine. That’s what I needed when I was a kid. I needed someone to brush me off and see me sparkle. These kids are all diamonds in the rough. My team and I took eight weeks out of our summer to help polish off some of the grime life covers its youngest with. Hopefully they’ll go back to the world a little brighter than before. And I am so lucky to have been a part of that.

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I’m Here

I’m Here

The other day I took a bike ride to one of my favorite places on campus, the trail tower. Our campus is lucky enough to be placed right next to a bunch of nature trails, and at the end of one is a three-story tower that college kids use to carve their names, eat takeout, have sex, or enjoy nature.

I was sitting up there listening to my music, and it was really green and windy and a little chilly out. I kept thinking of what my sister told me that day–that I was strong, that I had matured a lot, and that I was going to be okay.

We’d been talking a lot about the breakup and how unfair my girlfriend was being at that moment. My ex has basically cut off all communication with me and sworn off all responsibility for my emotions. It was right in the middle of summer camp I received her emotionless Facebook message; the kids were in bed, and I was in my room alone. Upon reading the short, dismissive message, I broke down and sobbed so loud my supervisor knocked on my door to see what was wrong.

That wasn’t the first time she’d confronted me about my mental health. On the third day of camp, she took me aside to ask about the scars on my arms, which I was convinced no one could see. She wanted to make sure I was okay, but having her scrutinize me like that, and ask me to roll up my sleeves so she could look closer, sent me into a small panic.

Later, one of the campers asked me what those “weird marks” on my arms were. Panicking once again, I told her they were cat scratches.

She looked me in the eye and said “I’m not sure if I believe you.”

She told me she knew what self-harm looked like because she had friends who cut themselves. I couldn’t speak, but stared back at her, fighting down the gasps that were wrenching in my chest. The last thing I needed was a panic attack in front of my campers.

I was lucky; she got distracted when her friend called her to look at something cool, and I was off the hook. She never asked about it again, but there were times I could tell she was looking at me more closely than the other kids.

My sister knows about the breakup, but my supervisor is the only one except my ex that knew for sure about my scars. There were so many times I wanted to tell my sister the story behind my long sleeves and knee socks, but the time never felt right enough or safe enough for me to do so.

My sister does a lot to help me cope with the breakup. She’s helped me process through every step and every interaction, which is amazing because she hates my ex’s guts. She’d never liked her from the beginning, but after what she’d done to me in the past two weeks, I could tell my sister was ready to kill for me.

My sister even called my ex a cunt when I told her what she’d been doing. It hurt to have someone I loved so much be called a nasty name like that, but to be honest, I actually laughed, thinking about it up in that tower. It was freeing. Yeah, she was being a cunt. I was okay. My ex, for whatever reason, was turning herself into a bitch to remove all feelings and attachments we’d had together. But I’m going to be okay. I have a lot to look forward to. I have two weeks of summer camp left; I have a lot of friends who I’m going to start seeing soon. I’ve made plans to go camping with my future roommmate, and another friend and I are going downtown together next weekend. I have my wonderful sister, and a bunch of great new friends through summer camp. I have so much to look forward to once classes start–my mentorship, internship, my tutoring position, my full course load, and my awesome on-campus job.

Because I have done a lot of shit and accomplished a lot. And I got here. One of the last things my ex said to me was to remind me that I’d got to college all by myself. And I fucking did! And I’m here, and I have done so many things, and nobody did any of them for me. I have a lot on my back but a lot ahead of me to and a lot to be proud of. If my family refuses to be here with me during my most successful time, too bad for them. It’s shitty of them to abandon me, to pretend like my uncle’s death won’t affect me, to tell me not to visit–because they have the benefit of distance; it’s easy for them to forget about me and pretend I’m not hurting. Same thing with the ex. I don’t need her, and I never did. It sucked that I’d felt like I had, and that she hadn’t helped make that feeling go away. But standing up on that tower by myself, with the green trees spreading out around me–below me, actually!–I felt so free, and so alive, and this time when I cried, I was laughing too.

Because I was happy.

Summer Camp Speculations

Summer Camp Speculations

I just love kids so much. Honestly, sometimes just looking at a small child makes me want to cry, and I really don’t know why that is. I think part of it is because I so intensely want to believe in the amazing spirit of every single child I come across. I want to tell them how awesome they are, how super cool it is that they’re wearing a blue t-shirt, that they are holding their sibling’s hand, that they stop and take a picture of the sunset or a bug with their phone. I want to tell them how much of life they have to look forward to. I want to tell them to keep the positive attitude that they start off with, that conviction that they are perfect and cool and capable and life is just an adventure to live and learn from.

At what point does our society tell our kids that they’re not worth it? What eventually convinces kids that life is a drag, a trial to be tolerated until something better comes along? When do they lose their free spirit, their unshakable sense of self? Who comes up to them and tells them that all the cool things they like are dumb? When are they compelled to stop, look around, see what “everyone else” is doing, and drop what they really want to do just so they can be like “everyone else”?” When do they become convinced that it’s better to fit in with an unrealistic mold than it is to stay yourself?

Recently I’ve started to take a look back at my own life, and I wonder the same things about myself. I know I complain a lot about my family, but my experiences with them don’t begin to explain the intense feelings of self-hatred I experience. And I know from talking to my friends that I’m not the only one. There’s something fucked up about the younger generation, and it’s not our fault, and I’d give anything for this next generation of kids to not have to suffer through it.

I wonder every day what happens to 12-year-olds to make them want to kill themselves. I wonder what kind of hurt kids must have suffered through to become bullies. I wonder how many times it takes for a kid to be hurt before they shut down and are labeled with some kind of mental disorder. I wonder about all the creative minds we’re suppressing because they way they work doesn’t fit “the norm.” I wonder when it was decided that asking for help was a bad thing, so kids are forced to look stupid and adults don’t take the time to ask “Why?”, rather focusing on the “what”–what haven’t you done, what do you need to do to make up for it? I wonder what happened to make parents think that taking care of their kids is no longer a humane necessity but a duty that they perform out of free will and tolerance, and then hang this over their kids’ heads as some kind of threat. “We take care of you, but we don’t really have to, and you should be grateful we give you anything at all.” What is going on here?
All I wanted as a kid was for someone to tell me or show me that I was worth it. That I was worth believing in. It took me years to even realize that’s what I wanted, what I’ve been missing. And now that I’m in a new environment, surrounded by people who love me, support me, and believe in me, I can’t handle it. I don’t know what to do about it. I’m convinced that they must be wrong, that they must be lying to me. I’m so convinced I’m not worth anything that when someone tries to show me the contrary, I shut down, and sometimes start to avoid my closest friends just to get away from that confusing feeling. And the worst part of it is that I know I’m not the only one experiencing this. So many of the people I know are feeling these same feelings and harboring these same thoughts.

And they keep getting younger. One of my precollege girls–she could have only been 10 or 11–wrote a message on the white board at least four times during our 2-week class. “Life is not meaningful.” And she signed it with her name.