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The news that all teachers were expected to attend camp with their students left me feeling unsettled. For the first time in more than 20 years, I would need to spend three days in the early autumn bush with 120 14-year-olds.
I am a committed teacher and I love spending time with teenagers. Working with students as they read The Great Gatsby for the first time is a joy. Learning to see the world through their eyes is endlessly fascinating.
But I teach Grade 12 English and am 51 years old, past the midpoint of a deeply satisfying and rewarding career. There is a difference between a literary seminar on King Lear, no matter how lively it may be, and late-night hijinks in a campground.
Besides, my idea of “outdoors” is biking on the Ottawa bike paths or sitting in the backyard with a cup of tea and a good book, one eye on the bird feeder.
When departure day arrives. I find myself in a gym filled with eager students, sleeping bags, duffle bags and backpacks. I don’t so much feel as though I am going to camp, but more that I am watching a movie of myself going to camp.
I watch the city melt away through the bus window. I pass out snacks. I chat with my fellow passengers. I read my novel.
Eventually, we turn down a long, bumpy dirt track that dives deep into a scrubby forest and then emerges near a wood-planked dining hall, a dark lake shimmering in the moonlight behind rustling pines.
I read the schedule and note the impressive minute-by-minute detail it reveals for the next 72 hours. I’ve never faced such a structured time since, well, when I went to camp in Grade 9.
I attend the inaugural camp fire and stand at the back, in the shadows. There are songs. There are skits. People laugh and have a good time.
I wonder what my wife is doing.
I think of home.
The next morning, I arise early. It is cold, and splashes of red patch and flare against the slate-colored sky. I grab a coffee in the dining hall and head down to the shore to read. A loon calls out from the mist that kisses the placid lake surface. Perhaps camp won’t be so bad after all, I think. Then I hear the camp director’s cheerful voice.
It is 7 a.m.: Time for the polar bear dip.
I don’t want to be seen in my bathing suit.
I don’t want to talk about the temperature of the water.
I want to look at the lake, not swim in it.
But I also know that the polar bear dip is a litmus test of whether at my age I am still up for a bit of fun. If I don’t swim, I will regret it. I know that. But I can’t bring myself to do it.
I read a couple of sentences, then feel sufficiently conflicted to walk down to the dock anyway. Everyone asks if I am going to swim. I respond with lame excuses and then loiter, like a Grade 8 boy at the edges of a middle-school dance.
Kids charge in, great plumes of water rising up around them as they shriek with joy. My colleagues link arms, count down and run into the water triumphantly. Toweling off, the swimmers discuss the water temperature.
I take a sip of what remains of my coffee. It tastes bitter and feels cold against my lips. The regret that I knew I would feel starts to gnaw, right on cue.
I will now forever be the guy who did not take part in the polar bear dip.
I weigh whether there is enough time to run up, get changed and leap into the water.
There is not.
I walk slowly up to the dining hall and resolve that from that moment on I will commit fully to camp life. My reluctance to do anything is replaced with a burning desire to do everything.
I find my team and we compete to move a bench across a field without touching the ground.
I send volleyballs crashing into the net, over the baseline and across a ping pong table, scattering campers like fall leaves.
I shoot a bow and arrow for the first time in my life, watching as the shafts miss their target and sail gracefully over the distant tree line.
I work with a group to have as few of our limbs touching the ground as possible. Six teenagers stand on my foot, climb on my back and then sit on me as I lie face down on the ground.
It feels like my rib cage will rupture.
It feels like penance.
I have never been happier.
At 7 a.m. the next morning, I am the first person on the beach in my bathing suit. Teenagers stumble sleepily toward the dock and I urge them on, cheering and clapping as though leaping into cold lakes is something I do every morning, 12 months a year.
I dive into the water like a seal. I splash. I frolic. I exclaim about how good it feels. Vigorously toweling off afterward, I talk to anyone within earshot about the temperature of the water.
Later that day, as the camp winds down, I volunteer to make friendship bracelets.
The students are dismissed from the dining hall by table. The director leads each knot of young people in an earnest discussion about what they have learned during their time together. I am moved by how genuine she is and by how carefully the students listen and respond.
I think that I may have learned the most of all.
I melt the ends of the red and blue cords, and fuse them together around students’ slender, tentative wrists. It is very quiet, and I am struck by how seriously we all take the ritual. Something has happened in this camp. To the students, for sure, but also to me.
When the last camper leaves, I extend my own arm toward the camp director.
“What colour would you like?” she asks.
“I want both,” I say.
I feel the two cords wrap around my wrist, snug against my skin.
At school the next week, and for weeks after, I wear my bracelets with pride.
John M. Richardson live in Ottawa.