Tuesday, May 09, 2006

4th Grade Camp Potawotami trip (Long!)

Last Thursday and Friday, Enoch and I (dad) got to attend Camp Potawotami's Outdoor Adventure (or whatever they called it) program with Enoch's 4th grade class; all 120+ of them! I went as a chaperone and didn't have a clue what was going to happen until I got there. Oh, I knew that there would be some "classes" and hands on activities. I figured I would end up playing baby-sitter to a bunch of 10 y.o. boys for 2 days.

"A bunch" turned out to be only 3 boys: Enoch, his best friend Ross (Enoch's book-loving-easy-going-separated-at-birth-twin) and Taylor, who nearly talked my ear off when he wasn't tripping over his own feet. He's a nice kid, but I'm glad he doesn't live with me!

We arrived at camp late Thursday morning, had an orientation meeting, lunch, then an orientation meeting for the adults only. This is where I first learned about "The Underground Railroad" (i.e. runaway slaves, Harriet Tubman, etc.) Camp staff asked for parent volunteers to play some parts in this underground railroad skit. I did NOT raise my hand! I don't act. Ever. More about the Underground Railroad (UGRR) later.

The kids and adults were split into 5 groups and then we began attending our classes. These turned out to be great fun for the kids. Every group got to attend all the classes. The classes were: Eggbert; build a container to protect your raw egg from a 10' drop. (with a twist: all the building materials had a price associated with them, and the winner safely protected his egg with the lease expensive container!) The Climbing Wall; looked suspiciously like a rappeling tower converted into a "rock wall" for climbing, generally ranked as the second most memorable activity at the camp by the kids. Native American Games; fun group games that didn't require anything more than willing participation and a little imagination. Wilderness Survival; learned that the first rule of wilderness survival is to NOT get lost in the wilderness!

Earlier I said: "I don't act." But, (you knew there'd be a 'but' didn't you?!) a parent had to back out of her part for the UGRR and I got stuck with it at the last minute. "Peg-leg Joe" was now my responsibility: an older, freed slave working in the south helping those setting out on the underground railroad. After dinner and free time, those of us playing parts in the UGRR met to get our costumes, go over instructions and ask last minute questions. My part turned out to be pretty simple. Something to sweat about, not lose my dinner over!

The kids (and remaining adults) played the slaves. The parent volunteers and camp staffers played the parts of various people the runaway slaves would encounter as they traveled from the South to Canada. As darkness fell the 'slaves' were introduced to their 'master'. This was a camp staffer who had some experience playing this roll and was able to get the 'slaves' in the proper mood pretty quickly! From my location I could hear lots of shouting: "On your knees!", "You think this is funny?", "Eyes on the ground", "What are you looking at? Eyes on the ground!" etc., etc. The 'slaves' were out in the grassy commons area at camp, on their knees, picking dandelions!! The 'master' spent about ten minutes getting the 'slaves' in the proper frame of mind and then gave them a break from their work. My part was to approach the 'slaves' while they rested and give them some friendly "advice" (escape while you can, things are about to get worse for you; follow the north star to Canada, etc.) After their 'master' cut short their break for talking to a freed slave, the 'slaves' get their opportunity to escape. They now are following an unknown trail in the dark with no idea where they are headed or what will happen next (the adults, though playing the part of slaves, were actually given some instructions as to where to go so that they didn't end up wandering off in the wrong direction) As the 'slaves' wander into dense woods, they encounter the 'sheriff' who has just been told that a group of runaway slaves is in his neck of woods. The sheriff's part also required a lot of shouting and intimidation but his was the one part I didn't get to hear. The effect was to further scare the kids and enhance the illusion that their lives were in danger. After a lot of questions and threats, the 'sheriff' eventually lets the group go and they continue deeper into the woods. Next, they meet a UGRR 'guide' who gives them specific instructions on where they will find a safehouse, the password they need to get into the safehouse, and gives them a lantern (it has a single candle in it, the first light they've had in about 30 minutes). The 'slaves' continue their journey a little less frightened until they meet the 'bounty hunter'. This guy is the scariest of all. He shouts at them, questions them, and is convinced the 'slaves' are runaways and has no plans to let them go. In fact, he's about to put them in chains and haul them off to auction when he gets "distracted" and the 'slaves' are off again (but not before being chased down the trail by the 'bounty hunter' yelling at the top of his lungs!). Finally they arrive at the safehouse, give the password, and are let in by a kind lady who promises to get them safely to Canada. Just when the 'slaves' start to relax, a 'nosy neighbor' lady comes knocking and wants to know what's going on. When the neighbor discovers runaway slaves in the house, she decides to go get the sheriff. The 'safehouse lady' can't let this happen so she chases the 'nosy neighbor' outside with a 14" cast iron skillet (which, when slapped against the outside of the cabin that this scene was stagged in, sounds similar to a gun shot!). Now that her neighbor is dead, the 'safehouse lady' must quickly escort the 'slaves' to Canada, making them step over the body of the 'nosy neighbor' in the process!

After all the 'slaves' arrived safely in 'Canada', we gathered around a fire for s'mores and a debriefing. I expected a mamby-pamby, politically correct, "why can't we all just get along" speech but it was actually a very thoughtful discussion. They started by bringing 10 kids to the front and pointing out that if this had been the real UGRR, these 10 kids would have been the only ones of the group to make it safely to Canada. We (well, the kids and camp staffers) discussed each of the characters, their possible thoughts and motivations with regard to the slaves, and how people act in a similar manner today. They ended the discussion by encouraging the kids to remember this experience the next time they think about treating someone badly just because they are different.

It was a powerful and moving experience. We adults compared notes later that night and the following day. There were kids who actually trembled with fright each time they were approached by one of the scary characters (the sheriff or bounty hunter) and more than one adult reported having to calm one of the girls who started crying. All the next day as we finished up our last two classes, the kids kept talking about their UGRR experience. From what I heard, having to step over the body of the 'nosy neighbor' on their way out of the safehouse seemed to make the biggest impression on them. (at least it got the most discussion!)

What I thought might be an interesting trip (at best) turned out to be a fantastic experience for the kids AND adults. I wish every kid could have the opportunity to travel the Underground Railroad!

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