I leave for Camp Jewell with my fifth graders this morning for three days of outdoor adventures in the woods of northwestern Connecticut.
This will be my fifteenth year at Camp Jewell. When I first brought students to this camp back in 1999, I was a rookie teacher who had been asked to go because of the limited number of men in our elementary school and my years of experience at Boy Scout camp.
It was soon discovered that I know every camp song ever sung, play a mean game of Simon Says and can yell loud enough to be heard on the other side of the lake.
I’ve been going ever since.
The memories that I have from the last fifteen years spent at that YMCA camp are astounding. Many are hilarious. Most are unforgettable. Quite a few are truly inspiring.
Camp Jewell is also a deeply personal place for me. I had my first real conversation with my wife at Camp Jewell as we hiked around the lake together with a group of fifth graders on a bright, Wednesday afternoon. Elysha and I first got to know each other while camping in the forests around that lake.
She and I brought students to camp for six years before she switched grade levels and then stopped teaching entirely in order to raise our children. We started out as friends for those first two trips to camp before we returning as a couple for the next four.
It’s been five years since Elysha returned to Camp Jewell with me, and I think about her and all the times we shared constantly while I’m there.
For my first fourteen years at camp, I was joined by a group of three other men: my former principal and two music instructors. Other male teachers have come and gone during that time, and some still return from time to time, but these three men were the core group who have been camping with with me every year that I have returned to Camp Jewell. Combined, we had almost 75 years of experience bringing students to the outdoors. Once the kids were in bed, our evenings were filled with stories of all the previous adventures that we had shared together. We would laugh well into the night at tales already told dozens of times before but still as funny and moving as the first time we heard them.
This year marks an enormous change in my life. While I return to camp for my fifteenth year, there is only one other male teacher with any experience at camp, and his totals a single year.
My principal has retired.
The instrumental music teacher has been promoted and now wears a suit.
The vocal music teacher won’t be able to join us this year.
The three men whose lives and experiences were so intertwined with my own at camp are now gone.
I was texting with my former principal about this last night and he wrote, “You are the history and tradition keeper now.”
I told him that this makes me sad. I don’t want to be the history and tradition keeper. I don’t want to be the bearer of all the stories and memories from the decades that our school has been bringing children to Camp Jewell.
Who will chime in when I tell the story of the time I recited French love poetry to my former principal while he wore a mop on his head as part of our rainy-day, spur-of-the-moment, teacher talent show?
Who will tell the other half of the story about the time I got lost in the woods in the middle of the night during a thunderstorm? The half about how no one noticed that I was missing even though I was gone for almost two hours?
Who will tell all the stories about the years before I first arrived to Camp Jewell? All those stories I love and remember but did not actually experience firsthand?
Who is going to play the guitar on Friday morning and sing, “It’s Time To Get Up!” to darkened rooms filled with bleary-eyed children?
When you spend fifteen years doing something with people, and especially when that fifteen years includes living with them, side by side, they become a part of you. You get to know them in a deep, fundamental way. You find yourself finishing their sentences, anticipating their movement and trusting them like few people in this world.
This morning I return to the woods feeling a little bit alone for the first time. There are female teachers joining us, and I have known some of them for just as long, and a few are some of my closest friends, but they will be up the hill, in a cabin of their own, and they are like sisters. Not brothers.
My brothers are gone. I am the last man standing from our group of four. This year’s trip marks an enormous change in our school and my life, and while I normally invite and even embrace change, this change involves the absence of friends. The journey forward without those who matter most.
Sometimes change is hard because it hurts your heart.