August 17, 2014

What price dedication to learning at camp?

Last night after dinner I was at the canoe dock testing two kids on their 1st class award in canoeing. For those who don’t know about the Arowhon awards, let’s just say that kids work two or three summers on their 1st class award, and that to be that good, you can hold your own against most folks. e.g. I learned to sail here at camp, and my 40-year-old 1st class in sailing was all that allowed me to sail a 52 foot sailboat for the first time with full confidence. So these are significant skills.

While I was doing the canoe tests there was a Senior Boy doing the end of his 2nd class test in canoe tripping over by the trip docks, and also at the same time there were a bunch of campers doing their timed swim for Bronze Medallion in the boys dock… all over camp other campers were also doing high level tests.

And they don’t all pass.

Some kids failed. There were tears. This is a big sadness for a child who’s worked hard. We could chose to pass pretty much everybody – We could be like the hockey leagues that give every kid a trophy. But then the award would hardly mean anything. It would not be, as it is now, a sign of having climbed the Everest of that activity. It would lack lustre and meaning. And yet, to keep the meaning of the awards, to protect their high standards, causes inevitable failure for some.

As parents, we have a rough time tolerating our children’s setbacks. Their hurt feels like our hurt too. This, we know, provokes us to jump in sometimes and try to forestall their failures. We struggle to accept “the blessing of a skinned knee,” in the inimitable words of author Wendy Mogel. No matter how you slice and dice it, it’s tough watching your child have a setback. There’s a natural impulse to prevent it or fix it.

But here at camp we see something different. I had to fail a kid on his 1st class in sailing yesterday afternoon, and afterwards, he went up the sailing instructor and thanked him, saying he’d learned a lot from that experience. I’d wager that he learned something about picking yourself up after a setback, and keeping on keeping on. Something about not letting setbacks de-rail you. Something about working harder next time out. Something about perseverance and grit and not giving up even when the going is really tough.

And I’m pretty sure that’s an incredibly useful life lesson.

Another example from my life: When I reflect on why Leon and I have found success as camp directors, I’m pretty sure that we’re not necessarily smarter or more talented than other camp directors. I’m pretty sure that what creates our success is really simple: Consistently hard work over many years. Picking ourselves up when things go badly, and keeping on trying really really hard. And that skill is one you learn from setbacks, not from having it come easy.

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