‘I’m alive,’ said Douglas. ‘But what’s the use? They’re more alive than me. How come? How come?’ And standing alone, he knew the answer, staring down at his motionless feet.
— Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine
What, as a writer, are you supposed to do with an experience so monumental that it resists story, that it defies condensation into cold, deliberate type? I’m not going to lie to you: I’m at a loss. But I might as well give you some snippets.
I spent the past three weeks as a group counsellor at a summer camp in South Tyrol in northern Italy. Ten counsellors, almost 50 kids, and a pretty cottage in the midst of the picturesque mountain ranges that have become pivotal in the region’s (false) association with calm and easy vacationing.
My involvement in this annual get-together started out as a promising opportunity to break out of my academic bubble. As has become my custom, I entered the whole affair with staggering surges of dread, which thankfully died down as I settled in, but then appeared anew; although this time it was not the terror of anticipation I felt but a dawning sense of the real thing: the anger, the frustration, the pity, the exhaustion. In short, I had signed up for an endless series of pedagogical trials that wavered from burden to bliss in the span of mere hours.
Fluctuation was one of the key themes of these weeks. From the very start, I was seized by an emotional turbulence that I found myself unable to escape for the better part of a week. With each arising tension, each insult passed from one negligent young mouth to the next, the mood could be completely overturned. Stuff like that really feeds on your nerves, especially if you, like me, belong to that wimpy breed of human to whom the imperative has become an almost obsolete grammatical mode. I had to fake a good deal of self-confidence to ensure I would survive in the day-to-day trenches of counsellor life. Sadly, I never got to tick that “fake it till you make it” feeling off my list of resolutions; I’m too slow and hesitant a person to ever “make it” as an authority figure. Even if my mouth pronounces a punishment, my sheepish look will betray all severity.
Shortcomings aside, it’s quite astounding how seamlessly I slid into this new role. Be it within my trusty team of fellow counsellors or the group of twelve- to thirteen-year-old boys I graced with my supervision, I was quick to mould my persona into that of a jocular, quite extroverted fellow. That said, I’m pretty sure the kids found me more irritable (and irritating) than my colleagues did. Among the latter I was to make a name for myself as an oblivious, easily overburdened, and generally “slow” type of person. Fortunately they all turned out to be very accepting of each other’s quirks and flaws.
Zooming in on the quirks rather than the flaws (since I tend to dwell on the latter too often), I got a rare glimpse of myself while I was there, as I was forced to incorporate many previously unconsidered points of view into my self-image. I wasn’t used to sticking out in any way because where I’m rooted there’s no shortage of vegetarian pseudo-intellectuals with an affinity for flower patterns and funny socks who take any excuse to drop a homoerotic comment. It’s just the world I live in. And although I had to put up with a lot of homophobic responses to my exterior, I even relished the attention for being “different” at times.
There is an intense pleasure in meeting people who don’t take you for granted yet, in being Someone New for a change. Of course, the process of getting to know one another more and more intimately requires that each of you learns to take the other’s idiosyncrasies as a given; otherwise there would be no progress. But building friendships with my colleagues at such a rapid pace has been incredibly rewarding: it has taught me the joy of feeling likable, which is a long way from what I’d come to think of myself up until then.
I remember texting a friend at home about my experience at camp, telling her that I was probably going through so much because I had been estranged from the “real world” while at university. After she rightly lectured me about the fallacy underlying the idea of entering a world that is more real than any previously occupied one, I said,
I don’t know what makes it feel more real. But I guess it’s the diversity of perspectives, the “outside world”. People at uni don’t seem at all similar until you really distance yourself from that environment and realize the scope of your experiences and get a feel for what a niche existence you are actually living.
I completely stand by that sentiment. Even if all worlds are “real” in their own right, each brimming with life and its accompanying challenges, I had found a place that put the rest into perspective.
It strikes me as paradoxical that on comparing my life at home to this parallel life, I find each to resemble a sort of shell. The series of petty abstractions I work myself into at university amounts to little more than a flicker in the dark compared to the bonfire of meaningful conflicts I got to experience every day at camp. For the first time, the downsides of living in my head were laid bare before me. It took a new home away from home to remind me of the crucial line between knowledge and experience: I was to come to grips with how little hard-won experience an average week at home has in store for me. In its own way, though, camp itself also left me feeling out of touch — with my life, myself, and, thanks to the scarcity of our WiFi connection, the broader world. It was a retreat of sorts, sure, but perhaps a tad too isolating. At any rate, I’m confident in the knowledge that I was in dire need of a break from my routine. I need to opt out once in a while, so that when I turn around again, I can marvel at the way things grow small from a distance.