I can tell when my eldest son, Dreamer D, is nervous. He laughs a forced laugh, and tells jokes that aren’t funny by any standard. It’s as if he is trying to convince himself that he is cool, or that he belongs, or that he has a sense of humor. He also becomes a clutz and trips and falls everywhere. It is kind of interesting to observe him in a heart-wrenching kind of way. It seems to me he is trying to compensate for something he does not believe he has. Then again, I am his mother and incapable of not projecting my feelings onto him. Still, it is unquestionable that he becomes a clumsy clown when nervous.
And a clumsy clown he was indeed as he headed out to summer camp at Shake-A-Leg, a sailing based non-profit organization in Coconut Grove, Florida. His camp is called “Adventure Island” and as the name implies, at 9:00am every morning he gets on a boat with his life vest on, and heads to an island on Biscayne Bay. He spends the whole day outdoors in nature, learning all kinds of different things.
He was nervous the night before camp began too. He was acting just as he did right before the start of kindergarten. The difference is that I spent all summer long building up kindergarten. I kept telling him how he was a big kid now, how he was going to be one of the oldest boys in the school, how exciting it was that he was going to have homework, and on and on I went thinking I was fueling his confidence. I didn’t realize that what I was really doing was fueling his fear of kindergarten, and created instead one terribly anxious child who had somewhat of a hard time adapting.
Thankfully, I tend to learn when my good intentions backfire, so with the Shake-a-Leg summer camp my strategy was different. In the weeks leading up to it, I would only talk about camp when the topic came up naturally in a conversation. Even then, my commentary was limited to how much fun he would have and how lucky he was to be able to go there. I crossed my fingers that if I didn’t fuel the fire, any fear would soon burn out.
Joe, my husband, took Dreamer that first day. My son said goodbye in his “goofy-nervous” way, and I could certainly understand why he would be nervous. He doesn’t know a single soul there. It is a large organization with simultaneous activities going on …. sailing camps, learning camps, and field trips from other schools. There are kids of all shapes and sizes and colors: a beautiful diversity that my sons aren’t exposed to. There are also children and adults who are differently abled as Shake-a-Legis one of the largest adaptive water sports facilities in the country. So Dreamer also gets to be with children who are in wheelchairs or have other special needs. At six, he is the youngest child in the entire camp. Yet somehow, I knew he would be okay.
Maybe because we have been to Shake-a-Leg many times to go kayaking or sailing, or because the organization has run this camp for years, or because I see Dreamer is growing and changing. Sure, this might be challenging but at least it will be fun. Come August, he is going into first grade, at a different school, outside the community we live in, away from all his friends and I bet it won’t be as fun as Adventure Island. So this is a wonderful stepping-stone and one that hopefully will not only open his eyes to a bigger world but also be a confidence booster.
3:00pm is pick up time. I could hardly wait for it. I am used to being a teacher and know what is going on. At the camp, I knew nothing. When I arrived there was a lot of hustle and bustle at the main building, a hangar donated by the Coast Guard to Shake-a-Leg. Older kids were getting into a school bus, others were sitting around tables, and many were running around and playing. Yet there was logic to the movement and no one seemed nervous, or anxious or lost … except for maybe me.
I got there just as the boat was docking back from Adventure Island. I saw a bunch of wet kids walking over to the main building and I saw my son, walking like any one of them. He was alone but seemed content, and had to return the life vest. As we walked towards the hangar, the center of all activity, I immediately started prodding for information, but not much was forthcoming. I did extract at great cost that he went fishing but did not catch much. He walked to a sandbar, and with a net his group caught a small ray, a needlefish, two sea horses, a tiny hermit crab and several urchins. He played games on a kayak that eventually flipped over.
He didn’t like the food, and his face was slightly sunburnt. We went to eat frozen yogurt at his favorite place. Slowly he started to open up. He told me about Daniel and Benzo though he didn’t how old they were. He told me a vague story about someone chasing him to tickle him, and that his bug bites no longer hurt in salt water. Individually, none of it makes real sense but pieced together these nibbles of information painted a picture of a happy boy. He sat on a bench outside the yogurt store, feet up and back slightly bent. He spoke with a smile and each phrase began with “and you know what”. And do you know what? I can tell when my son is comfortable, and I could tell he was comfortable then.