In a fit of post-admin-role freedom, I booked myself to go to sleep away camp halfway through Orientation Two Days. I flew away to Halifax, on points, to join my friend Megan for four days at Big Cove Camp, the oldest such camp in Canada. The camp was called Make. Do. Camp. And they took away our phones.
It was a transformative experience.
I remember camp as a child: sing-alongs, campfires, hikes, group activities. I remember feeling … nervous, disconnected, not-quite-right, not-quite-fit. I did not feel, as it were, hailed (in the Althusserian sense) by camp: everyone seemed social and outgoing, everyone was chipper and enthusiastic, everyone had lots of friends and no inner turmoil. There were things I loved about camp: being outside, swimming, the rhythm of the days tied to cycles of daylight, and so that’s why I went, and only with a friend–we’d have each other at least, even if there were cliques and we didn’t fit in any of them.
But here’s the thing. I have never felt so connected to a group of strangers in my life. Never so safe, never so seen and supported. Part of it was getting rid of the phones and the safety line they provided, but much of it was due to incredibly thoughtful facilitation, and there’s something to learn from this that I can bring back to my teaching.
From the opening ceremony forward, camp facilitators, directors, leaders, and minders opened up spaces of difference and welcome. They invited us to come in, in all of our differences, a huge list of identities and feelings and orientations and histories. We could be a group, they suggested, while remaining in substantial ways complicatedly different from one another. This was magic to hear. I felt named and seen and as a result could not retreat to my usual space of meteoritical, ironic, abstract distance. They hailed me: nervous, skeptical, hopeful, tired. The welcome, in seeking to name all the ways we could arrive in the space in all our differences, took a really long time, as they sought to acknowledge and celebrate these differences. And we all sat there, rapt: we had been seen and noticed and named and welcomed.
It is amazing how a sense of group feeling can develop from a 15 minute recitation of all the ways we are different from one another. Instead of jostling for space or recognition or feeling excluded, we become more free to find a strand of connection.
I’ve been thinking, as a result, of how I welcome my classes to the term. What totalizing assumptions do I make about them that might limit or exclude them, that might lead to ironizing, to checking out, to hurt feelings or disconnection? How can I welcome and celebrate everyone’s differences so that they feel hailed into our shared project?
I have been trying to start the term by inviting personal communication from students, creative work that situates them in their own contexts, on their own terms. Then I summarize for the class all the different kinds of difference we see, and how wonderful it is, and how little we can know about one another just from looking at a list of names, and majors, and year level. I think I could do more, I’m wondering how. But the kinds of work that people can do when they feel seen, heard, understood, and recognized is incredible, and I want more of that possibility in my own teaching.