SUMMER CAMP NIGHTMARE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Ellin is away all day, but will answer comments when she gets back this evening! It’s that time of year 😀


Most people wax poetic when they talk about their idyllic summers at sleep-away camp when they were kids. Tennis, volleyball, waterskiing and other fun sports. Campfires, nature walks, bunk hijinks, and lasting friendships.

I had none of those wonderful experiences. I went to sleep-away camp one summer when I was thirteen.

I refused to ever go back again. I was miserable.

Me at around thirteen

My horrible experience was basically due to three factors. The first problem was my parents’ choice of camp. They sent me to a progressive, Montessori style arts camp called Bucks Rock Work Camp. The selling point for the camp was that there were lots of artistic opportunities but there was no schedule or requirements for the campers. Each child had to choose their own activities each day.

While this format is great for self-motivated kids with intense interests and actual talents, it was a disaster for me. I had no overpowering interest except for theater. And that was an organized activity that did have a specific schedule. So most days I wandered around. I tried jewelry making, art, and pottery. I took fencing classes and a few guitar lessons. But I was pretty aimless most of the time.

The second problem I had was my bunkmates. There were four of us in two sets of bunk beds. One of the other girls spent every night sneaking out the window to meet boys. The other two were best friends and overtly excluded me. It was very uncomfortable and demoralizing. I had other friends but this cast a pall over my camp life.

The third problem was the way the camp handled the casting of the big theatrical production of the summer. This was what I was looking forward to. This was the all-consuming activity I was waiting for.

The play was “Peer Gynt”. I auditioned along with hordes of other campers. And the lead females role narrowed down to two girls, me and someone else. I didn’t get the role. This would have been fine if they had done the reasonable thing and given me a subsidiary role. I was good enough to be the lead, so you’d think they could find some other part for me. But no. I got nothing. Not even a place in the chorus. This was a horrible thing to do to any camper. Anyone who was interested and had any skills whatsoever should have been allowed to participate.

Theater production in outdoor theater

But I was shut out completely. And I was devastated. A part in the play would have given me focus and purpose for the rest of the summer. Instead, I joined a small theater class. I did end up with a lead role in a scene we did from the “Madwoman of Chaillot”. (Great play choice for teenagers!) The problem here was that the counselor was the brother of a girl I grew up with. I had known him my whole life and we hated each other. We did not get along at all. So this turned out to be another unpleasant experience.

The whole situation stressed me out so much, I could not memorize my lines. They were actually quite hard to remember because they were the nonsensical, non-sequiturs of an insane woman. At the performance, I skipped a page and a half of dialogue.

The audience didn’t notice. In fact, I got a compliment I’ve never forgotten. An adult from the audience told me that they had been to a professional production of the play and that my performance was as good as the professional actress they had seen!

another photo of me at around thirteen

I called home once a week and cried hysterically every time. My parents offered to take me home but I refused. I decided to stick it out. I didn’t want to admit to or give in to failure.

Looking back, I now know that I had an anxiety/depressive disorder my whole life and I was probably spiraling into a pretty bad depression that summer. Going home might have been better for me, therapeutically.

But I proved to myself that I was strong and could survive a lot. So while I had an awful summer, I learned that I’m a survivor. That lesson has gotten me through a lot in life and I’m grateful I learned it so young.

LET THE CHILDREN PLAY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

The title of an article I read in the Washington Post on September 16, 2018, by Katherine Marsh, sets out its primary argument pretty clearly. “ We’ve so over-scheduled our kids that doctors are now prescribing playtime.” The article is subtitled “We idiotically insist that all of their activities be purposeful and structured.”

micromanaging parent

To give some perspective, an American who lived in Brussels for three years, contrasts her child’s school experience in Belgium and America. In the Brussels school, the kids had 50 minutes of recess every day plus a 20-minute mid-morning break. This time was unstructured, free play with minimal teacher supervision. In the Washington, D.C. school, the kids had just 20 minutes of recess. And some American schools only provide fifteen minutes.

By the time the kids get their coats on and get outside, there is almost no time left for relaxed, creative play.

The American Academy of Pediatricians seem so concerned about over structured kids, they released a report emphasizing the developmental importance of free, unsupervised play for kids. It stresses that growth and discovery are more likely to occur in kids when they are not being micro-managed.

The Academy went so far as to suggest that doctors write ‘prescriptions’ for playtime when they see young children during regular checkups.

American parents seem to think that every moment of a child’s life needs to be purposeful and educational. The reason for this may be that parents feel very competitive about their children because of anxiety over their offspring’s economic prospects when they grow up. American parents will apparently brag about their kindergarten child’s reading prowess but be unconcerned that the same child has no clue how to play with other kids, or by herself.

Of course, everyone wants their children to grow up to be motivated, purposeful, successful adults. But parents seem to have lost sight of the fact that to reach that goal, children need to play and imagine and invent activities on their own. That in itself helps kids grow and develop the skills and traits we want them to have. Not everything a child does has to directly lead to future skills or benefits.

“True play is freedom from purpose,” says Katherine Marsh. And this downtime is an important part of every child’s cognitive, social and emotional development.

GROWING UP WITH McCARTHY – Garry Armstrong

This is one I never intended to share. It had been buried in the deepest part of the memory chest I never planned to revisit.

I was branded a “pinko” as a kid.

I grew up in an era when the name McCarthy was first associated with Edgar Bergen’s puppet pal,  Charlie McCarthy. We followed Bergen and McCarthy on their radio show, religiously, along with Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Bob Hope and the other funny people of a more innocent era.

All of that changed when “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy unleashed his witch hunt of everyone in the guise of ferreting out Communist sympathizers. It was part of a bleak period when Cold War angst followed World War 2.

McCarthy is news again because of the current White House occupant and his apparent fondness for McCarthy’s tactics.

I didn’t understand why people shied away from talking about something called “The Black List.”  I was still in grade school but a voracious reader of newspapers, magazines and the gold mine of books in our home library.

One of those books was “Not So Wild A Dream.” It was written by Eric Sevareid, a news commentator I listened to every evening on CBS Radio News. I loved Sevareid’s gritty voice talking about the evil in far-off places like Russia.

I was puzzled when Sevareid talked about how “we” were endangered by a politician named Joe McCarthy. I had seen the newspaper stories and headlines – famous actors and writers ‘outed’ as “Commies.”  I asked my parents about it but they told me “no worries,”  it didn’t involve people like us.

What did that mean? People like us?

I was fond of taking some of my grown-up books to school. I liked to show off the books I was reading. I was on first-hand terms with Sevareid, John Steinbeck, and the guy who wrote about “Crime and Punishment” in Russia.

While other kids bragged about their new cars, summer homes, and vacations in Florida, I only had books with which to earn bragging points. I didn’t always fully understand the books, but I liked how the words were put together. I enjoyed reading them aloud.

It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for words. The sound and feel of words.  Words that you can sometimes stroke because they touch your heart in a special way.

All of this was the prologue to a nasty wake-up call for my youthful innocence.

Garry receiving his Broadcasting Hall of Fame award – September 2013

We had an assignment in Composition Class. Probably the 4th or 5th grade. My heart was beating at double speed as I searched my treasure trove of books. I skipped past kid stuff like “Treasure Island,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” and my whole collection of baseball related material.

“Not So Wild A Dream” was the winner. I was just getting into some heady stuff by people named Odets, Miller, and Lardner. I liked what they said. I used to memorize sections to impress my Mom who was always proud of my ability to sound like a proper young man. I figured everyone would respect that ability.

I remember it was a warm spring day.  I was wearing my new spring outfit — LONG pants, crisp white shirt, and shiny new shoes. I was brimming with confidence in Composition Class. When volunteers were asked to read their homework,  my hand shot up faster than Big Don Newcombe’s fabled right arm.

My throat was dry but I plunged right in when I was selected. I read some passages from “Not So Wild A Dream” and a quote from Clifford Odets who was talking about social ills.  I didn’t understand much of what I said but it sounded and felt good to me.  I looked around.

Silence and a few nervous giggles. My teacher had a strange look on her face and stammered as she praised my work. She told me I probably would see the Principal later to discuss my impressive homework. I was beaming with pride!

The Principal seemed nervous as he talked to me. He hemmed and hawed. He even stammered. Where had I found the books I read? Who gave them to me?  I proudly told him about our home library and the magazines we got every week. I remember the Principal’s eyes arching in surprise.

What was the big deal,  I wondered.

All the joy of that morning came crashing down on me during lunch recess. The warm day meant we could open our lunch boxes outside in the play area.  I was munching on my sandwich when I saw kids staring at me.

I began to pick up the words.

“He’s a pinko.”

“His parents are pinkos.  I’m gonna tell my Mom. All his people are Commies, my Dad told me.”

The whispers grew louder. Finally, I was approached by a couple of the guys who used to pick on me because of the way I dressed, my glasses, and my stupid hearing aids which made me look a space villain.  Oh, yeah, they also picked on me because I was the shortest kid in the class.

What now? Were they jealous of my composition?  What the heck?

The biggest kid came right up to my face.  He had bad breath and smelled worse.  I don’t think he bathed often. I could see the red pimples sticking out on his face. “Hey, you four-eyed deaf midget nigg_r,  so you’re a pinko too, huh?”

Pimple face leered at me,  obviously daring me to get up and fight. I gulped hard.

His pal, beady-eyed, and sweating, taunted me, “I hear all you people are Commies. You don’t go to Church — you go to Commie meetings! All of YOU people. I’m gonna tell my Dad. You’re in big trouble, you lousy little pinko.”

My throat was dry and I was very scared. I couldn’t think. Then, the bell rang.  Lunch was over. I was (literally) saved by the bell.

That evening,  I recounted everything to my Mom and Dad. They listened without saying a word. Usually, they’d interrupt me, correct my language, diction or choice of words.  When I’d finished,  they looked at each other for a long time before speaking to me.

Mom and Dad were unusually patient in explaining things to me. I think I was a little put off by their civility. I tried to absorb what they said. It was hard.

I remember Mom telling me I’d have become more mature than my age. I was going to deal with more of these “things” as I grew up. She smiled wistfully as she tousled my hair.

And that’s how I started on the road to journalism. Suddenly, I understood something about the grown-up version of the truth.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO LET THEM SHOW – Rich Paschall

True Colors by Rich Paschall, Sunday Night Blog

It’s hard to grow up with the perception that you are different from everyone else, even if it is not really so. When you do not know much about the outside world, the world inside you can make you sad. “Why am I not like everyone else?” you may wonder.

“Why am I so different?”  Thoughts like this can lead to sadness. Even though you try to act happy on the outside, your eyes might give you away.

“You with the sad eyes

Don’t be discouraged

Oh I realize It’s hard to take courage…”

75-RainbowNK-2 There is no way to know that being different is not necessarily wrong when your emotions are telling you otherwise.  Worse yet, other people are telling you that different is wrong, even if only in an indirect way.

“Cut it out.”

“Be a man.”

“Grow up.”

“Stop crying.”

“Why can’t you be more like your brother, cousin, sister, uncle, ____(fill in the blank.)”

“Don’t you like sports?”

“Don’t be a sissy.”

“Only a queer would wear that shirt, pants, shoes, ____(fill in the blank).”

Some seem hard-wired to accept the criticism as they grow up. They look like everything just rolls right off of them. They smile while they hurt. You may think, “Every kid is teased as he grows up. It’s just part of life.” Yes, we all get teased, but some of us are different from the majority … and can’t cope with the teasing.

“In a world full of people

You can lose sight of it all

And the darkness inside you

Can make you feel so small…”

At the darkest moment, a rainbow may appear

With a limited view of the world, and lack of experience dealing with the emotions tossed your way, you can feel small, insignificant, different. And different seems bad when you are trying to find your way. What is inside you has dark colors and no glow.

“Dear god,” you may silently cry in the loneliness of a dark room just down the hall from the so-called regular people, “please make me like everyone else.” The prayer might be repeated until you are empty of tears, and they no longer wash down your face.

“But I see your true colors shining through

I see your true colors and that’s why I love you…”

If you are different, but not in a bad or destructive way, you may need someone to reach out and tell you it’s all right. Someone, anyone, needs to explain that different can be okay. You don’t have to be like the majority. Each can possess unique characteristics that make them special, important, creative, fun. And everyone is worthy of love.

“So don’t be afraid to let them show: your true colors…”

Encouragement is needed to let friends, neighbors, and especially young ones know that each has his own gift. We can’t all be the same. We can’t all do the same things. There is nothing wrong with singing a different tune, being a different kind of person. Diversity can be strength. All the pieces can come together to form a perfect picture. When all the colors are put alongside each other, they can bring everyone joy.

“True colors are beautiful like a rainbow.”

If all this seems a bit cryptic, then let’s just say it is tough to grow up different and hiding who you are. The song “True Colors” has taken on a rather symbolic meaning in some circles since it was first recorded by Cyndi Lauper. Contrary to what some belief, it was not written by Lauper and was in fact the only song on her True Colors album she did not have a hand in writing. Nevertheless, it resonated with her and years later she co-founded the True Colors Fund to wipe out LGBT youth homelessness.

John Legend sings this for kids and teachers. You can find a Cyndi Lauper version here.

LIMERANCE AND TEENAGE OBSESSION – Marilyn Armstrong

One obsession. Once. A long time ago.

I was 16. Freshman college year. One boy, first time “doing it.” I think it was mutual. It certainly went on — against all odds — for about 20 years. It was very innocent in 1963. Less so with each passing year.

It’s funny, after so many years, how the details have disappeared. I remember that it happened, but I don’t remember what it was that was so obsessive, that had me in its clutches.

I only know it was a long time ago when all of me was young, healthy, and in a single piece with no replacement parts.

Obsession today is more like a worry I can’t get away from. Typically — these days it is something I know I need to do but don’t want to. Inevitably it has something to do with money. Everything else I can work through, but money is so inflexible.

1963

I discovered this morning I’d been hacked on another credit card. I didn’t know about it, but I was having trouble using it and it appeared the address on the card was wrong.

How do they do that? How do they manage to change my address and get away with it? I suppose they guessed the 3-digit code. If they have a little program, it can probably run all possible 3-digit codes in a computer’s heartbeat.

Otherwise? People are a part of my life or not. If they bother me or get under my skin, I don’t deal with them.

I’m not sure who I was at 16. Not me. Someone else, inhabiting what was sort of my body – back then.

THE TRUTH OF SCHOOL

I always find myself defending school to kids. They complain it’s dull. That there’s nothing in it that “grabs” or fascinates them — and nothing they will find useful in life.

I find myself trying to explain that school wasn’t fascinating, but that many of the boring stuff you learn in it is indeed going to be useful. Like arithmetic, the ability to add and subtract mentally without a calculator or even a piece of paper and a pencil. The point of school wasn’t only to intrigue or titillate us but to make us ready to face the real world in which we all must live.

High School, really

Some studies were dull, but you needed to know it because while there’s creativity, there is day-to-day life too and unless you are one of the entitled few, you will have to do your share of it.

I was the kid who had a book in my lap so when no one was looking, I would read. Although I love science today, in school, it wasn’t interesting. Maybe it was the teachers who were dull. In high school I had a double period of botany beginning at eight in the morning when I was already half asleep. The class went on for two hours. We had a teacher who knew her stuff, but talked in a monotone. She’d start to talk — and I’d black out. Gone.

I did not do well in that class. A pity because I was interested, but she was better than a sleeping pill. Twice as good, really. Nothing I ever took knocked me out as well as she did.

 

Social studies which would today be … what? Social science? History? Some weird version of both? It consisted of everything that wasn’t English, math, or science. What we called “the rest of the stuff.” I was a passionate, ardent, enthusiastic reader.  I loved history and the world. But social studies? With those stupid work books where you would answer a question and then you had to color the pictures. Seriously? Color the pictures?

I flunked coloring.

English was dull, too. We had to read books that were of no interest to anyone. I suspected the teachers found them dull too, but it was in the curriculum and that’s what they were supposed to teach. They did. We yawned. I drew pictures of horses in my notebooks. Sometimes, when I got tired of horses — I never got the feet right — I moved into castles. I was better at castles.

If they let us write, I was good at that. But being good at it didn’t make it interesting. My summer vacation wasn’t the stuff to brighten my week.

The teachers droned on and on. Those of us who intended to go to college hung in there. It never — not once, not for a split second — crossed my mind that I should drop out and work at an entry-level jobs for the rest of my life because I was bored at school.

 

1893 Thayer Library Photo: Garry Armstrong

For me, going to college was exactly the same as going to heaven. I would go to college because I knew I could learn. I never doubted my ability to think. I was sure if I made it to college, the rest would follow. And so it did.

I learned a lot of things in college. Ultimately, the really interesting parts of my education were learned at work, when math, science, and statistics were relevant and meaningful.

When you are working, the things you learn are in a context. You discover science has a purpose. Numbers are not random shapes which you jiggle around until you get the answer or sit with empty eyes wondering what this is supposed to mean. I did stuff at work I had found impossible in a classroom.

It wasn’t my fault. It was their fault. They taught the material so poorly no one who didn’t have a special fervor for it figured it out. What a pity for everyone. Worst of all, they meant well. They genuinely did the best they knew how.

College had its share of drones and bores … but there were enough wonderful teachers — maybe a dozen — who were inspirational.
They were was enough.  For each year of school, there was at least one or two teachers who made a difference in my life. Plus, I was in an environment where everyone wanted to learn. We needed to learn.

We chose it.

I have never properly explained the whole school thing to my kid or granddaughter. I told them “Oh, it’s not that bad.”

PS 35, Queens

Except, it really can be that bad. Sometimes, it’s even worse and comes with boring teachers and brutal classmates. That is very bad. Whether they are teasing you because of your color or because you are smart and they aren’t … cruelty is cruelty and kids can be cruel.

The thing is, you don’t stay in school because it’s fun. Or because the quality of education is uplifting. You are there because you know that this is what you must do if you want to have a real life.

If you also get wonderful, inspiring, enlightening teachers, that’s better. But even if they are dull, you still need to be there.

School is the work of childhood. It’s the “why of the how” of growing up.

PREMONITION OR BUSTED?

PREMONITION?


It’s not really a premonition when you know you’ve been busted. On camera. At that point, your “premonition that something unexpected and not good” is going to happen is more of a lurking fear.

Sneaking along the dam. Wondering what they have planned? Not homework!

Pictures of sneaky teenagers supposedly in school trying to disappear down by the dam. Will their premonition become reality? It all depends on the photographer. Lucky kids because — hey, it’s no skin off my nose. I’ve always thought every kid deserves at least some sneaking around time. It’s part of growing up.