A Breath of Fresh Air
The summer after my first year of theatre school, I was sleeping on the living room floor of my cousin's apartment in Toronto, trying to figure out what to do with my life. My cousin had been an actor before he became a quadriplegic in a car accident, and as I unadvisedly bemoaned my unemployment status, he said something like, "Seriously? You're complaining about your life? Don't make me burst a colostomy bag." He was right, of course. I wasn't in a wheelchair, though I did have a stepmother who had rendered me homeless because of her dislike for me. She was always saying things like, "Your hair can't be as ugly as that hat you're wearing." Or simply refusing to invite me to things like Christmas dinner. I always admired people with families. My boyfriend at the time was one of five kids who were always doing things together. Their house was always full of noise and activities. Even as a shiksa, I felt more at home there than with my stepbrothers and sisters, who never lost an opportunity to point out that I was weird. I wanted to stand up to them, but not wanting to cause my father any grief, I held my tongue and sought refuge elsewhere. It occurred to me that perhaps I was using the theatre as an opportunity to say things through characters that I couldn't find the courage to express myself.
The Toronto Star was still open on the kitchen table, and I rummage through the Want Ads, that dirty part of the newspaper near the back where complete strangers will soon become complete assholes in your life by forcing you to work menial jobs in humiliating uniforms for minimum wage.
"Find anything?" my cousin called from the bedroom, where two attendants helped wash and dress him.
"Social services are advertising for camp councilors to work with emotionally challenged kids."
"Oh yeah," He said. "That might suit you."
I'm not sure I knew what he meant but, I was beginning to think I'd outgrown my welcome. My cousin probably would have encouraged me to join the circus if the option had been available. Knowing my living room days were numbered, I thought it best to make an effort and apply.
I had no experience teaching drama—no experience working with kids and no experience going to or working at a camp. Despite all that, I was hired. It's worth noting that it's probably not a good sign if you get a job with no qualifications whatsoever.
My official position was Drama Councillor, and I prided myself that with only a year and half of theatre training behind me, I was well equipped to help others benefit from the wealth of my experience. I imagined myself, Maria Von Trapp, teaching children how to sing while they looked at me adoringly. Somehow, I conveniently blocked out the rebellious early stages she experienced and skipped straight to the good parts. Also, I might add, forgetting about the Nazis and having to climb over a mountain. Still, visions of me biking around camp with a group of happy campers behind me filled me with a sense of self-satisfaction.
As I packed my knapsack with deet and a secret stash of Twinkies, I thought of how only three weeks earlier I'd been in New York walking through Central Park and savoring Cappuccinos at outdoor cafés on Columbus. Now, here I was, ready for something different. The wilderness, I imagined, would be a welcome change—fresh air and loons instead of smog and sirens. I thought smugly about my classmates sweating behind visors at take-out windows shoveling fries into cardboard cups or wrapping sandwiches in tinfoil. Thumbs up to adventure, I told myself. The fact that I'd never once in my life enjoyed the great outdoors didn't factor into my mind. All of this changed with each accumulated minute of the 391 Kilometer drive north.
It was late afternoon when I arrived at the compound. Overcast, sullen, it was a place so secluded you'd need flares to find it. It had that distinct aura of someplace time forgot. A place left behind and neglected. In the brochure, the sun was shining, flowers filled the meadow, and you could practically hear laughter floating off the page. What I was looking at bore more of a resemblance to a situation in a Stephen King novel where camp councilors discover a pack of hungry teenage zombies have lured them to a seemingly idyllic retreat. Situated right in the heart of black fly country, I spent most of my days swatting insects so big they seem Jurassic.
During our orientation, child care workers warned us that children with mental health needs tend to run away - a lot and to keep strict attendance records and all eyes on them at all times. "These kids are resourceful and clever," they cautioned. I couldn't imagine kids so determined they'd risk their life by escaping through the woods that surrounded them, but then again, I'd never been around children who weren't allowed cutlery before either.
I shared my cabin with three other women with who I had absolutely nothing in common. Delia, a humorless 27-year-old cooking instructor who answered every question with a monosyllabic grunt, Jennifer, a 26-year old tennis instructor with massive blond ringlets who talked so quickly she sounded like a record on high speed, and an older aboriginal woman named Sunny who made us all dream catchers and offered advice about how to heal ourselves on days when we'd feel spent. "Remember, these kids need us," she said while purifying our cabin with sage. As I glanced around my assigned bunk, taking in the spider webs and loose floorboards, I had that sinking feeling that comes when you know you've made a terrible mistake. Before long, I was eating copious amounts of peanut butter on stale bagels amid a never-ending supply of starch. I'm not sure who thought it was a good idea to feed children with challenges like anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, and eating disorders copious amounts of sugar and carbs. It certainly did nothing to help them or me.
On the first day of class, I sat everyone in a circle. "Welcome to drama class," I said with a smile. "Let's begin by sharing a little bit about ourselves. Anything at all you'd like us to know?" A hand went up.
"I'm Tracy, and I hate my stupid ass brother. He can go straight to hell."
"Okay," I said, "That's a start. Who's next?"
Another hand. "I'm Jonathan, and this place sucks so much I wish it would burn to the ground!"
"Fair enough. Anyone else?"
"I'm Jo. I'm schizophrenic. So sometimes I'm Rachel and Julia. You'll know the difference because Rachel has a British dialect, and Julia talks slang."
"O-kay." I glanced at the social workers who sat on the edge of the room and looked at me with an expression that basically said, "We can't wait to see what you do next."
"Let's write a play," I suggested. "Write anything you want. Once you're happy with the work, I'll shape it into a cohesive piece that we'll rehearse and then present at the end of the season talent showcase."
The kids liked this idea. The showcase was a big deal. It was an opportunity for them to blow off some steam and express themselves to friends and family in a creative way. My only stipulation was not to use profanity. As the weeks passed, I was impressed with how well they all threw themselves into this project—all except Eric, the oldest boy in my 12 to 15-year-olds. Eric often wandered around the rehearsal space, unfocused and sullen.
"Any ideas for your piece?" I ask, checking in to see if I could help.
"I'm thinking," he'd say and then pace.
With three weeks left in the summer, I took my well-deserved week off to decompress. My boyfriend came up from Toronto and drove me to his parent's house at Post and Bayview, where caterers were preparing the tennis courts for an outdoor party. I walked into his mother's living room, and she gasped. "What happened to you?"
I didn't blame her. I hadn't spent much time looking at a mirror the past four weeks, but one glance at the large one in their bathroom told the full story. My hair was ratty; I had scabs on my knees, bruises on my arms and legs, and I was sunburnt. I was wearing a vintage skirt and blouse that was probably more Value Village than vintage and a pair of worn, scuffed purple moccasins; in essence, I was wearing slippers on my feet.
"Please take her to the mall and at least buy her a pair of shoes," his mother said, handing me her credit card and then rushing off to make sure the stuffed alligator would float in the pool. That week I ate my way through rugelach, hamantaschen, brisket, and bagels while his family watched me with awe and disgust.
Back at camp, the smell of burning insect repellent greeted me along with the news that the sailing and tennis instructors were sacked for disorderly conduct. Never mind, I had renewed energy and a sense of purpose. There were costumes and props to make. Sound and lighting effects to create. And we needed to rehearse. It was only a tiny stage somewhere on a remote camp in Northern Ontario, but the excitement was palpable. I was excited. This would be the best talent show ever, and my kids were going to blow the socks off everyone there!!!
"Eric," I said, "How's your piece coming along?"
"I finished it," he mentioned casually
"That's great. Can I see it?"
"I want to surprise you. You're going to love it, though. I promise."
I patted myself on the back. Eric had a breakthrough. All my encouragement and patience had paid off. Perhaps I'd helped him have a developmental breakthrough.
"Can you tell me what it's about?" I asked.
"Great. Okay," and left it at that.
Talent Night arrived along with parents and family friends. The lights dimmed, the kids performed, and the audience enthusiastically applauded as each "Mighty Mite" or "Spirit of Paradise" breezed across the stage, acting out skits about fairies and monsters and assorted escapades. Finally, it was Eric's turn. Out he came, looking serious and theatrical. He cleared his throat and addressed the audience.
"This is called, The Beatles Last Recording Session. By, Me."
Three of his closest camp friends filed out and took a space on the stage. The audience was silent.
There was a dramatic pause, then the piece began.
"Fuck you, Ringo,"
"Fuck you, Paul."
"Fuck you, George."
"Well fuck you, John."
Then they bowed and left the stage.
Personally, I thought it was kind of brilliant. Needless to say, I wasn't showered with accolades about my teaching methods or the effect I had on kids. I left there having no catharsis about mental health except that giving people the opportunity to express themselves without censor is probably a lot healthier than insisting they stay quiet. I admired the honesty displayed in the kid's work. If only, I thought to myself, I could be half as brave. Wasn't that what I was spending time and money learning how to do?
A week after being home, I found myself packing, once more, for school in New York. Our term letters had arrived with instructions on where to buy character shoes, leotards, copies of The Children's Hour, and Death of a Salesman. The camp already felt like it was 391 kilometers away - soon to be 659. My father drove me to the train station with my stepmother beside him; she was there, no doubt, to ensure I boarded.
"You going to be okay?" my father asked, giving me a hug and slipping a $50 bill into my pocket.
"She'll be fine." Elsie chimed in. "You don't have to worry about her. Let's go."
But I wanted my father to worry about me. Not all the time and to the exclusion of all else, but certainly the appropriate fatherly amount.
As I settled myself on the train, I watched my stepmother pull from father from the platform to the car. As they drove out of sight, I thought of Eric's brilliant play. Under my breath, I whispered the immortal words of the Beatles, "Fuck you."