It was time for our annual 7-day camping trip with 60 school kids from 3rd to 5th grade. The kids were excited, tingling with anticipation of time in the woods— sleeping in tents serenaded at bedtime by the teachers (known as the Wandering Nostrils—mishearing of Minstrels), cooking outdoors, skipping stones in lakes, splashing in creeks, swinging in hammocks, getting dirty, eating S’mores and other glories of the outdoor life. But as we gathered in our cooking groups, one third-grade boy seemed visibly nervous. Talking to him alone after our meeting, he confessed, “I’ve never slept away from home before.”
So my wife and I talked to his folks and quickly agreed for a trial night away from home—at our house. We prepared ourselves to receive him, cooking a favorite meal, getting out some favorite board games and bedtime books, letting him know we would take him home anytime he wanted to and assuring him that he was but a phone call away. I remember a couple of tenuous moments, but he got through them, passed his “initiation” and went on to the camping trip more confident and prepared. I remember sitting next to him on the bus ride home and as we came around the turn in Route 80 where the Golden Gate Bridge is first visible, he turned to me and said, “Now there is a beautiful sight.” He was proud that he had made it through the whole camping trip, but also quite happy to be going home.
This all happened over 30 years ago and I hadn’t thought of it for at least 25 of them until a retired school colleague told me he met this boy at some school Conference, now a fully grown man over 40- years old. In the course of conversation, the question came up, “Who was your favorite teacher from back then?” and without a moment’s hesitation, he replied “Karen and Doug.” “Because you liked art and music?” “Well, I did, but that’s not why. It’s because I spent my first night ever away from home in their house.” And that’s when this forgotten story came back to me.
I am still struggling to adjust to our culture of fear and litigation and I’m not doing so well with it. Today, I would probably have his parents sign a waiver absolving us of all mental damage, check with all my Insurance companies, make sure I didn’t hug him goodnight for fear of child abuse, sign a statement that to the best of my knowledge, no food prepared in my house had touched a peanut just in case he was allergic. Perhaps I would suggest his parents hire an “Attachment Therapist” to help him deal with his issue at big bucks per hour. Or recommend that his doctor give him some anti-anxiety pills. Or maybe I’d go the “Tough Love” route and tell him “If you can’t handle a night away, you can’t go on the trip.” Or go the consensus route and cancel the whole trip: “If even one child is uncomfortable, then none of us should go.”
Instead, my wife and I simply invited him into our home. It worked. And some 30 years ago, he still remembered it. Had my colleague not met him, I never would have known it. Nor did I need to know it. Most of what people remember of extraordinary kindness was just ordinary common sense or decency. But we seem to be losing it. We are so tangled in our fear, so lost in the self-help culture, so crazed with official solutions to simple human problems, that we have lost our bearings. We don’t trust our intuition to do the most obvious, the simplest, the most humanly decent thing. We have become cold, calculating, covering our butts instead of opening our hearts. It is the shame of our age that decent people are doing indecent things driven by fear instead of led by love.
What will our children remember 30 years from now? “I remember this teacher was going to invite me for an overnight, but he consulted his lawyer and was advised against it.”
I ask again. What will our children remember 30 years from now?