As sixth grade ended, my teacher recommended me for a summer enrichment camp.
“You’ll love it,” she said. “Every day for two weeks, you’ll get to study drama, writing, and photography.”
I desperately wanted to go.
When I brought the paperwork home to my dad, he frowned.
“I don’t think so,” he told me.
“But, Daddy, it’s a special thing. You have to be invited by your teacher and I get to study drama and writing. It’s going to be so much fun. I can even ride the summer school bus to get there every day—please, Daddy?”
“It costs, you know.” He sounded tired.
The attendance fee, I think, was twenty-five dollars. Maybe thirty. It didn’t seem like a lot to me, but I knew Daddy worried about bills. My mother had ongoing medical expenses; my sister and I took weekly allergy shots. I knew not to bother Daddy when he sat at the table with the checkbook—I wouldn’t go near the kitchen at all, for then he wore a worse frown than the one he was wearing now.
No point in pressing him. I went to my bedroom, shut the door, and cried.
Later that day, or maybe the next, Grandma called. After chatting awhile with my father about news, how our all of our relatives were in their little North Carolina hometown and how everybody was there in Virginia, she asked to talk to me.
Daddy handed me the phone. It had a long cord—really long. From its wall mount, the phone cord reached the floor. It would stretch from the kitchen down the hall to my room, where I could sit on my bed and talk in private.
“Hello, Dear,” she said, the warmth of it like June sunlight bursting through a break in the clouds. “I just wanted to hear your voice.”
My tears welled again. “I miss you.”
“Is something the matter?”
I told her all about the camp, about Daddy saying no because of the cost.
“How much is it?”
I told her.
“I’ll pay for it,” she said, uncharacteristically crisp. I could almost see the lift of her chin, the flash in her blue eyes. “I believe children should have the chance to do some things they really want to do.”
“Thank you,” I sniffled into the phone.
“Let me talk to your Daddy.”
And so it was that I went to the summer camp on the benevolence of my greatest advocate, Grandma.
Riding the bus with high school kids having to attend summer school in order to pass their grades was an adventure unto itself, but beyond that, camp was a laboratory of creativity.
I encountered pantomime for the first time, communicating story with the body, without words. I wasn’t especially good at it but some of my fellow campers—aged eleven, twelve, thirteen—were astonishing. One boy mimed being closed in by a shrinking box so well that the box was virtually visible. I watched, holding my breath, enthralled.
The drama teachers grouped us into fours, gave the groups four words, and challenged us with writing cohesive skits with these four words embedded in dialogue. My group’s words were—to the best of my memory—lion, clock, heart, flies. We were timed on the writing of the skit and the rehearsal of it, including the creation of minimalist props out of construction paper. My group, with me as scribe, wrote a farcical story of a doctor having to treat a patient who was attacked by a lion and who got away by throwing a clock at it, to which the Groucho Marx-esque doctor remarks: “My, how time flies!”
We entitled it “Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat” after a TV series that none of us really knew much about except that it seemed weird and therefore perfect: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
We performed last for our fellow campers, to a standing ovation and teachers wiping their tears at our over-the-top slapstick antics. Yours Truly played the hapless doctor.
We studied fairy tales; we wrote and illustrated our own, to be “published” in laminated books we could keep. I wrote “The Littlest Mermaid,” having long been captivated by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Ages before Disney brought us red-headed Ariel, my pink-haired mermaid battled jealous bullies. When I wrote The other mermaids hated her, the writing teacher said, “Hate is a strong, terrible word. Do you think it belongs in a story for children?”
I revised: The other mermaids didn’t like her.
Ever since, I’ve thought about the power of one word, and when is right or not right to use it. And audience. And whether children should be shielded from the word hate, and when are fairy tales just for children?
In photography class, we campers built cameras from shoe boxes, learning about light leaks and timed exposures. I was able to produce a picture of a basset hound (they don’t move a lot) and my classmate sitting in a tree. The teacher explained that we were “photojournalists”—we’d write about the process of building and using our cameras, what worked, what didn’t, and why. He then encouraged us to write stories about the images we took and developed.
For a final writing adventure, the writing teachers invited us to look through a stack of glossy, full-page photographs. I chose two: One of a single coyote standing in a canyon, the other of four little coyote pups. I was taken by the animals’ beauty and the warm, reddish colors of the rocks.
Trouble was, I knew nothing of coyotes beyond the Road Runner cartoons. The animals in these photos were unexpectedly magnificent.
Thus began my first real foray into research. It began with place: Where do coyotes live? I needed to know. At home that night, I cracked open a dusty encyclopedia from the bottom shelf of the living room bookcase. After poring over the coyote entry, I chose Pueblo, Colorado, for my coyotes’ home. And having learned, somberly, that man is the coyotes’ worst enemy, I had an idea for a plot: Survival. After the mother or the father coyote is shot, the mate takes the pups on a journey to a new home. I also encountered the word ravenous for the first time . . . and when my teachers asked me to read my story for the gathering of families at the program on the last day of camp, I mispronounced it, saying that the coyotes ate ra-VEEN-yus-ly. “I wish I’d heard you read it aloud first,” a teacher apologized. “It’s RA-ven-ous-ly.”
Alas. Reader’s vocabulary.
It was decades and decades ago, but the richness of the camp is with me still: Every day an adventure, with something to discover, to explore, to synthesize into something new; an extension of myself, what I love, who I am. A wealth of learning compounded with interest, over time.
That Grandma made possible, because she believed it was important, even necessary. I later learned how much she wanted to take piano lessons as a child and her family couldn’t afford it. A charitable young preacher’s wife eventually taught her how to play.
And, ever the angel wielding the sword on my behalf, Grandma was willing to take a piercing in return; she sent me to the camp even though she knew it would shorten the time I’d spent at her house that summer.
Because, for some investments, the payoff is incalculable. Grandma understood this.
And even then I understood that I was, in so many ways, enriched beyond measure.