I have the pleasure of working with some incredible kids within the Columbus community. One of the organizations I work for does a yearly summer sports camp on Ohio State’s campus. Each summer, more than 600 at-risk youth living within the Columbus community attend. Maybe this doesn’t sound like a big deal, because it’s not… it is so much more than that. This month long camp is totally free for families, transportation is provided to and from camp each day, and every kid gets breakfast and lunch. We also teach youth social competency skills.
For the past two summers I have had the upmost privilege (and challenge) of having kids at a sports camp, in a classroom setting, while teaching them social skills. I’m sure you can imagine how excited 9-14 year olds with too much energy are to sit in a classroom in the middle of the summer at a sports camp. I’m sure you can picture the amount of times I say, “Put your fidget spinner away,” or “Take your headphones out please,” or my personal favorite, “Keep your hands to yourself!”
You’d be surprised to learn that most kids actually love this part of camp, sometimes more than the sports themselves. Welcome to “Chalk Talk” with Coach Ellen.
This is a story about my favorite camper from this past summer, my fierce 9 year old companion. I hope this story touches you, just as he has impacted my life for the better.
The first two weeks of camp with his group are difficult… his group has a lot of strong personalities. And when I say “strong personalities” I really mean a lot of behavioral issues. He always sat front row, as close as a kid could possibly get to my desk. He was clearly tired of his group’s behavior issues, and honestly, I was running out of patience myself.
Both I and another Coach spent the last couple minutes asking the group to be respectful and reminding them what our expectations are. I remember him breaking down crying, throwing his head and arms onto the top of the desk. “I haven’t done anything wrong all day! I’m tired of being blamed when I’m not the problem!” He was inconsolable.
As the group begins to leave, I ask if he will walk with me. I reassure him that I know he’s not misbehaving or acting out during Chalk Talk. I tell him how much I appreciate that he sits front row every day and is so eager to participate. I ask him to remember that if his group is getting into trouble, and he knows that he’s not the problem, the Coaches see that too. I encourage him to be a leader and to help get his group members back on track, because I see that ability in him. I think this is the moment we first became buddies.
It was as if a lightbulb went off in him after our conversation. We walked all the way to lunch hand-in-hand. He stopped crying, and instead wore a big smile the rest of the day.
The third week of camp, I started sitting with his group at lunch. Of course he saved a seat for me each time; we were buddies after all. I remember that it was a Wednesday and my first group was pretty stressful. His group was next for Chalk Talk… they had a pretty challenging session as well. His group lines up to leave, but he is glued to his chair. The expressions on his face go from angry to sad. I’ve never seen my little buddy look so sad before.
“I’m not leaving,” he says firmly. I try as best as I can to talk with him and figure out what’s going on. It takes 45 minutes for the two of us to walk to lunch, which is normally a 15 minute walk. He is fighting me the whole way, stopping randomly on the sidewalk to pout. It’s a hot, sunny day and I am growing more impatient and hungry with every passing minute. He says that he’s mad at his Coach who had promised to give him a self-control button for being good during Chalk Talk, but then never gave it to him.
Unamused and not understanding why he is so bent out of shape over not getting a little button, I try to reason with him. “I’ll talk to your Coach once we get to lunch. I bet he just forgot. I’ll remind him.” Nothing is working, I can’t get through to him. My little buddy’s comments are becoming increasingly troubling…
“Everyone always lies to me.”
“I hate my life.”
“I can’t trust anybody.”
“Everybody always lets me down.”
“I… I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“I want to die.”
“No one would even care if I wasn’t here anymore.”
“I’m just gonna kill myself.”
I realize that there is so much more to him being “upset over not getting a button.” He has felt this way before. This conversation is no longer about a tiny piece of plastic awarded for good behavior at a summer camp.
He is 9 years old… He is only 9 years old but knows what it feels like to be let down, to be betrayed, to be lied to… He has felt all of these many times before. I don’t know what his home life is like or what his life looks like outside of camp, but there is clearly some trauma here… and because of this, he is triggered by the button fiasco.
Before I can even say anything he takes off running. He is running head-on towards a moving truck driving in the street. My legs start moving before my brain can even process what is happening. I am sprinting and waving my arms at the truck driver. Luckily, I catch my buddy before he gets too close to the oncoming vehicle. My arms are wrapped around him but he is trying hard to fight me off. “Get off of me! Get your hands off of me!” I am trying to talk him down and explain that I cannot let go of him until we are at lunch and I know that he won’t try to harm himself.
On the way up the many flights of concrete stairs into the football stadium where we eat lunch, he tries to jump off. My arms are firmly around his body which he is not happy about. He’s fighting me off again. Finally we make it into the lunch room where I immediately hand him off to a behavioral specialist and explain the situation.
I didn’t see him the rest of that Wednesday of camp.
I couldn’t stop thinking about him when I got home.
I lost track of how many times I cried that night: wondering if he was okay, if he was safe, if he felt cared for.
I didn’t sleep much that night.
I had not known the things he was carrying, the pain he has already experienced at 9 years old.
The next day at camp I search for him before the day starts. He is stand-offish upon my arrival. I ask if he is feeling better today and he just shrugs. “I know you had a rough day yesterday. Do you want to spend the whole day in Chalk Talk with me, as my helper, instead of going with your group today?” There’s that smile again. I missed that smile. I wasn’t sure if I would see that smile again.
We spent the entire day together.
It was one of the best days of my life.
He helped me prepare for each of my groups, teach lessons, and pass out supplies.
The following day he asks to stay with me again. We had a rain delay the entire day of camp, so we spent our time playing Uno, watching movies on the projector, and making trips to the vending machine. I let him take the elevator with me instead of the stairs. We raced all the way to lunch in the pouring down rain (he absolutely smoked me and I suddenly realized how out of shape I am).
It’s the final week of camp and I don’t want it to end. Ever since that day where my little friend had his breakdown, he has spent every second of camp in Chalk Talk as my helper. Now it wasn’t always easy having him as my helper. Sometimes I would have to remind him to be a helper and not disrupt my lesson with a group, but I wouldn’t change a second of our time together.
The final day of camp was incredibly fun. I had learned so much about him. We told each other secrets, and he told me about his family and about what he wants to be when he grows up. I tell him that he’s my favorite camper, to which he said “I already knew that!” I told him that I want to have my own group next summer instead of doing Chalk Talk again.
He made me pinky promise that I would make sure he’s in my group.
I told him I don’t break pinky promises.
It’s time to load the buses and I am dreading our goodbye. It’s pouring down rain as we run outside to his bus. We are standing in the rain and I’m doing a pretty good job of holding myself together.
I’m resting my knees on the pavement so that I’m on his level. “Have a great rest of your summer! Be safe. Stay out of trouble! I’ll miss…” He cuts me off.
“Coach Ellen!” He gives me a quick hug then pulls away.
He looks me in the eyes and says, “Coach Ellen… I love you.”
I am so surprised by this. Does he know how much he has taught me? How much I care about him? He is one of the kindest, most energetic and goofy kids I’ve ever worked with. He is carrying so much, yet he is so full of love and compassion. Does he know how special he is? The world is lucky to have him… I am lucky to know him.
I couldn’t help but tear up as I stared back into his eyes.
“I love you, too” I tell him.
We hugged once more before he ran onto his bus. We are both drenched from the rain. He waves to me from the bus window, the biggest smile on his face.
I hope he is safe. I hope he knows how much he is cared for. I hope he never forgets that he’s my friend.
I can’t wait to see that smile next summer. I can’t wait to see how much he’ll grow and how much he’ll learn before next summer. He is my favorite camper, he is my little buddy, and he was the highlight of my summer.
This is his story; this is our story. I do not know the full weight that he carries… but I do know that he carries love, laughter, and light inside of him. Most of all, I know that I am a better person for knowing him.