When nine-year-old Nate arrived at Camp Logan, an upstate wilderness camp for kids with emotional disabilities, his stare was indecipherable. He unloaded his duffle bag from the van in an uncoiling motion. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on Nate’s nine-year old frame. I had learned from his bio that he was from St. Helena’s Island near Beaufort. Being a military brat, whose father had been stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, I was familiar with Nate’s sea island terrain.
The week before the kids arrived at Camp Logan, grad students from the psyche department instructed me and the other summer counselors on the basics of “Behavior Modification” and taught us concepts like reinforcement, extinction, and escalation. Fundamentally, they taught us how to predict and control pissed-off children across environments. My father, a marine aviator, had demonstrated similar tactics to our family long ago, but with drastic consequences—knuckles and nuclear bombs.
Those psycho grad students dragged us on a hellish backpacking trip along the Chattooga River. They taught basic camping skills necessary to survive two-night, three-day backpacking trips. By early afternoon of the second day, I had developed crotch rot and sheepishly asked the camp nurse for an ointment. She dug into her first aid bag and pulled out a tube. Minutes later, I howled while squatting in the icy Chattooga river for her to tell me what the hell was in that tube. Examining the tube for the first time, she fessed up, accompanied by everyone’s laughter, that the ointment contained menthol. The rest of the hike was miserable, but I shuffled onward smoldering and wet— a survivor of rocky terrain, river currents, and fire crotch. Schooled in the savvy ways of behavior modification and basic backpacking, I was ready for the twerps.
I soon realized the camp’s therapeutic concept was that pairs of preteens who hated each other, hated the woods, and hated backpacking, after hours of hiking would be too exhausted to kill each other or harm wildlife. Accordingly, they would limp into camp sites as compliant as sheep, set up camp and cook meals as teammates. Somehow transformed in six weeks, they would return to their homes and schools having generalized vital social skills.
What bullshit! Some tenured professor had theorized over Merlot that baby psychopaths would choose to cooperate with their peers to pitch tents, gather firewood, and cook meals when threatened with foul weather, night fall, and swarms of biting insects. Cooperate or perish was the essence of the professor’s theory. By the end of summer, I wanted the kids to take turns kicking him in the nuts.
Nate was assigned to Cabin Five, a stiletto of fate for him and the three other runty deviants who were stuck with me as their camp counselor. I was a third year undeclared major in college who had taken this summer job out of desperation. When I interviewed, my ability to tote objects and obey simple commands, sealed the deal. I was as screwed up as any kid dumped into Camp Logan. Possessing a genetic disposition for manic states, I had self-medicated with copious amounts of beer since entering the University of South Carolina. By the end of the six-week wilderness camp, I’m pretty sure the kids thought they were there to counsel me.
On the afternoon of the second day of camp, the kids took a swim test in the roped off area of the lake. Counselors were in the water, on the dock, and on land. My job was to ask each kid if he or she could swim. Those who said “no” waited for lessons on shore. I watched from the dock as the swimmers jumped into the lake and swam with counselors to shallow water.
When it was Nate’s turn to show his stuff, he marched without hesitation to the end of the dock, leapt, and disappeared like an anchor dropped in murk. The two counselors in the water flipped their bodies after him as I dove off the dock. Before I reached Nate, they had brought him to the surface and side kicked him to shore as he coughed water. I arrived seconds later scared and angry.
Nate lay on the shore, looking defiant as I began my diatribe:
“What the hell were you thinking? You could have died. Why didn’t you tell me you couldn’t swim?”
Nate looked up and with words that changed me, said:
“I didn’t know.”
His words stunned me like my mother’s slap. I lost my breath and it took several minutes to recover. Later that day Nate promised he would tell me the stuff he didn’t know. For the rest of the summer, he beamed at me when I addressed him as “Fearless Nate.”
How does a future find you? After Camp Logan, I chose to be a special education teacher. When school started back in September, I was focused on a goal. Nate and the other hellions had entered my consciousness. Those kids had more courage and heart than other humans. I had found a tribe I wanted to join.
Through the years, I never forgot Nate’s lesson. You never forget the moment that transforms you. I became a teacher.