Earn and Learn part 1

I don’t remember 7th grade. I loved my school, teachers, friends. I often showed up late. I did my work. I didn’t talk back to any teacher. I just didn’t take notice enough to remember. I didn’t notice, but my teachers did. Toward the end of the year two important things happened. First, I was called to a conference with all my teachers. Just me and them. They told me that if I continued to be late I would miss the end of year picnic. Egg tosses, water balloon tosses, outdoor silliness, that I looked forward to. Done then, I was on time after that. But an impression had been made. An impression of a sad quiet child lacking motivation to perform certain expected tasks. Second, I was recommended for a work study program for the following year.
Though I was well behaved and academically present, I wasn’t actually present. I was also lucky enough to be growing up in Evanston Il in the 1980’s where Rick Weiland lived and cared for children in the program he was passionate about, Earn and Learn.
Earn and Learn started with camp. It set the stage for what would be, hopefully, a positive turning point for students heading the way of a problem. I wouldn’t call us “at risk” because I don’t know what’s really meant by that, but also because it’s difficult to see oneself as an at risk youth. So I told myself we were the ones in the middle. Not too problematic, showing promise, heading astray, therefore steered this way, into Rick’s guiding care.
First of all, I had to make a commitment. Yes, I would see the year through. Yes, I would try, I would show up. Easy to say to a piece of paper asking for my signature. Easy to enjoy at camp. Camp was the first activity. Camp where the main lesson I learned was that the individual is accountable to the group, but the group is also accountable to the individual, that we were one entity when gathered, that one could hold up progress for all. While I don’t like to think that life is this way, it is. The upside is respect, the downside consists of many character building moments when patience must be called on, courtesy, honesty, where walls tumble and we are all in one room, vulnerable, waiting. This being when one person was not cooperating, therefore keeping the group from moving to the next activity. We knew it going in. No less annoying, no less frustrating.
Camp was like most others, tucked into nature, surrounded by tall trees. The dining hall was large, cabins for sleeping, cabins for activities. Worn dirt paths, grassy earth.
I learned about deliberate meditation at Earn and Learn camp. Mats on the floor, we were to lay quietly, let ourselves relax…quietly. I loved the idea, It felt cool. It wasn’t easy to do as a group. The meditation cabin was dark on a bright afternoon.
Other character building at camp included some kind of points or “bucks” system (wish I could think of the exact name). There were many ways to earn points. At camps end, we would all go to the Dells, a supposed high point. There we would convert our points into money. I was so completely unimpressed by the Dells that I almost didn’t enjoy being there. Just seemed like a man made bunch of nothing compared to the week I’d just spent expanding as a human being. The only way to earn these points that I remember was to swim across a small lake as many times as possible. I think I went across twice, though maybe only once. I believe a guy named Andrew surprised us all going back and forth more than anyone, many times more. I say the lake was small. Standing on the shore at 5am, cold, tired, determined, I did not think small. I tried not to think, just dive in and go. I would have thought “huge”, but that would have stopped me at the start. I wonder what I said aloud?
We went on an all day bike ride, 48 miles?, with 3 or 4 stops along the way for cheese sandwiches, juice, probably some fruit. At the first stop, I glided in ahead of the front pack of boys I’d been riding with. After a bit,one of them realized this and alerted all the rest. So this pack, all boys and me, stayed ahead. At each following stop and the end, a great race set up, incredibly intense. Those boys were so upset at the idea a girl might beat them. They stayed upset because I won every time, though they gave a great effort, with lots of hollering to encourage whoever was at the very front with me. I held onto that triumph for years, proof that I could win, that being a girl made no difference even in a competition with boys.
We repelled from a small cliff too. I was so ready for this to be exciting. It was a lot of waiting at the top of a bit of rocky wall where each of us was securely wrapped in straps and buckles. In the sunshine, I see a swarm of wasps tucked in to the side of the rock. That was the excitement, listening to the concerned confusion that followed. Going down the side of a rock with what felt like a diaper was not. I enjoyed talking to Ernie too. Of all the counselors, he was my favorite.
Structure in nearly every moment. We knew they were growing us. We knew they were serious…usually…until, one evening, outside the dining hall which was near the lake, a fantastic ketchup and mustard fight was loudly, messily enjoyed.
I thrived there. I was home. I did not miss the city with it’s hot cement, sunlight reflecting in slicing glares off tall buildings, the incessant roll of rubber tires, synthetic reality. Camp was simple. I grew there.
Camp set the stage for the year ahead, which is another story, the test of commitment.

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