Quaker Camp at Ben Lomond Quaker Center this summer was both the best and worst week of my life.
Typically, based on my three summers’ experience working at Ben Lomond and another three being a camper, there are two weeklong camps: Quaker Camp for rising fourth through sixth graders and Service Camp for rising seventh through ninth graders. Ever since I was in Service Camp, they’ve run simultaneously in different lodges at the Ben Lomond Quaker Center in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Last summer, at our final staff meeting after the campers left, the proposal to merge the two camps was brought before the staff yet again, after several years of trying to make it happen. Well, this year, it did: One larger camp called Quaker Service and Art Camp was formed.
Maybe the problem was from having such a large group with a wider age range; maybe it was the smaller staff-to-camper ratio, different staff dynamic or different camp co-directors. Maybe it was because there was a different cook. Whatever the cause, early on there was an increase in drama and gossiping culture and decrease in staff attentiveness to the campers’ mood and dynamic.
I’m not going to write about all the details of the drama we had. There’s too much to tell, and I couldn’t convey properly the shattering disappointment we felt in each other and ourselves that such a sacred space had been treated so savagely by those whom we trusted. Discussions were had – conversations with the boys, the girls, then a group of the boys, then the girls in one cabin and the two boys harassing them, etc.
I found myself leading most of the conversations with campers. I’ve always prided my ability to connect with my campers, but this year I felt like I failed them.
By the end of the week, I – and most others at camp – had shed many tears but also had grown immensely. I reflected on my life and my plans after high school a lot.
One morning, my service group had some time to kill before our next activity, as the other groups were still out doing service around Quaker Center (building trails, steps, etc.), so I sat at the piano in the lodge’s dining hall while some campers gathered to spend some downtime there. One boy, a Latino, the younger brother of one of my co-counselors, was moving around the tables, and he came over to me and said, “Look! Donald Trump came and built a wall!” The tables were all in a line, blocking the way to the door about halfway through the hall.
I told him to put the tables back, that everything we play with has to be returned as we found it, and I helped him put back all the chairs and tables. While we put them away, I thought of what to say to him (I was the only staff member around), and as I pushed in the last chair, I called him over and reminded him that the situation with Latinx people is dire: Families are being separated at the border, and those families could have been our grandparents, our parents, even us.
He nodded gravely and said, “I know.” We hugged and I took a walk.
I’m not sure what about that instance really triggered me. I’ve seen pictures of teens sitting in a gym with rifles on top of boxes with hate speech against Latinx people on it. I’ve heard what people say about us in the news, on television, in movies, in books – I guess I never thought it could happen at Quaker Camp, my safe space.
A friend who had been a counselor with me in previous years had stayed the night and was there for the morning. She found me in tears, curled up on the balcony of our cabins. She came up to me and asked me what was wrong; she then sat with me and listened.
I told her what had happened with the camper – and then I realized why I was crying.
Quakers believe there is a Spirit within all of us (some call it God, some the Light, some the Spirit; I call it good), and we can receive leadings from it, promptings of what is right to do. (For example, I’ve met a Quaker who was “led” to serve in the U.S. Army, and even though we are all pacifists, he did. He was also challenged severely by his Quaker community for his actions.) I suddenly felt that urge – what other Quakers might call a “leading” from the Spirit – to do service at the U.S.-Mexican border. More specifically, service with children in detention centers near the border. I felt led to witness both the torn-up lives of the children and the conditions that those who cross face – the physical barriers just beyond the border.
I was devastated by my revelation. I knew what the right thing to do was – change my plans for college and do service. But that would mean giving up, to some extent, college, learning, the east coast – everything that’s been getting me through school, tests, life …
My parents have always placed learning, above all else, on a pedestal. This makes sense – they both have Ph.D.s, and they’re both in the first generation of their families to go to college. They want me to do great things. And I do love to learn; I love being in a classroom, but I believe I can do more good elsewhere. It’s a hard choice between the more difficult and the easier path, between others and the self. I’m still wrestling with it.
This was the one thing on my mind during camp, on top of all the drama. And though it definitely hindered my ability to focus on the campers, I wouldn’t have changed that week. I need to be thinking about this, and I’m glad I thought of it while in a safe space with people who are open-minded and loving and supportive.
At the time, I thought taking a gap year was my only option. But it’s really only one option of many. Gap year, gap semester, programs with whatever college I do attend (like a semester-at-the-border type of thing), going to college near the border – all those are options, and I still have no idea which one I’ll ultimately choose.
So, change of plans for the next few years. I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m sure I won’t make the right choice. I’m not going to try to make one now, for you. Instead, I’ll give you a poem.
Three from Now
I’ll be in my room, killing time all day,
loner once more. I’ll be the same writer I’ve always tried to be:
honest and not working quite long enough or hard enough,
taking stupid risks and running with them, but
not taking the risks that pay off in the long run.
I’ll be stressed out about college, taking these little pills that
make me less anxious, seventeen, driving, arguing with and bullying
the boys I like the most: continuously pushing people away.
I’ll be a better writer, write every day, read every day.
My horizons will expand, still pushing out poems that make others
uncomfortable, but I’ll have more pride in myself.
I’ll be in southern Texas, bearing witness to the children
who will have grown; I’ll bear witness to the cost of our freedom.
I will try to do all the good I can amid the corpses in the desert,
in the rivers by the border. And I’ll know why I write:
it’ll be to document the terror; it’ll be the first
step to change; it’ll be to reveal the humanity
of my brown-skinned people; it’ll be to let their deaths
not be in vain—to let the dead and dying still live, alive.
I’ll be part of the system, more so than now, of oppression,
which allows us to accept our lives without thinking
and reject others’ lives, others’ right to live, without thinking,
the system which has a cost—the cost is the childhood of darker-skinned peoples,
the lives of peoples with different tongues. I’ll be a part of the system
which destroys, and in that system I will try to be different,
but fail to succeed at that daunting task. I may no longer write,
though it is my nature, for doubt seeps into this pen—
doubt that these words can make a difference,
doubt that they’ll be read.
—By Gabi Alvarado