How will the story turn out?

It’s now about 40 hours or so until I arrive at Camp Cumberland Pines for my Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry week.

I will be participating in Summer Plus, leading a creative writing workshop for teens from remote mountain communities. I’m not sure whether my workshop will be in the morning or the afternoon; whichever it is, in the other half of the day I’ll be assisting in a workshop taught by someone else. (I don’t know what that will be yet.)

I originally got involved in Mountain T.O.P. through wanting to teach a creative writing workshop, and Mountain T.O.P. has clearly changed my life. Even so, I sometimes have a love-hate relationship with the workshop. There are years when it all falls into place and I really feel like amazing things are happening. There are other years when the fact that I’m not a trained educator is all too evident.

Each year, the selection of workshops offered at Summer Plus depends on how many volunteers sign up for the program, whether they bring specific workshops they want to teach, and whether they might be willing to teach other workshops if asked to do so by the staff. So the selection of workshops is a little different every year, and the group of teens is a little different every year. The teens are asked which workshops they’d like to attend, and the staff always tries hard to give them at least one of their top choices. Sometimes, however, they end up in a second workshop that wasn’t one of their top choices.

What this all means is that some years I get teens who are at least potentially interested in creative writing, and some years I get teens who aren’t. And while some of our workshops are fun and active enough to make converts, creative writing – if you don’t want to be there – seems an awful lot like school. I try to make it as little like school as possible, but sometimes I just feel out of my element.

Last year turned out to be a good year. One of my assistants last year was a teacher and coach, someone who works with kids this age on a regular basis. Toward the beginning of the week I thought, “Here’s a teacher, someone who knows what I really ought to be doing. She probably thinks I’m an idiot.” But when we started writing a group story, collectively put together by suggestions from the group, with me sort of smoothing out some rough edges as I transcribed it, I think she was genuinely surprised at how well it all came together.

The worst experience was one year at Camp Glancy when I was doing both morning and afternoon workshops. The morning workshop was great; the afternoon kids were so miserable, and I ran into such a brick wall trying to keep them engaged and deal with misbehavior, that we ended up disbanding it midway through the week and sending those kids to other workshops. I was in tears when I talked to the camp director about shutting the afternoon session down. I felt like I had completely let the kids and the program down.

But it all seemed to work out. I got to sit in on Richard Schilling’s women’s self-defense workshop, where I put on a padded suit and was wailed upon by a selection of teenage girls. Richard, by the way, is the very ideal of a Summer Plus workshop leader. He would teach karate in one session and the self-defense workshop in the other. You wouldn’t think you could get very far in two hours a day for a week, but we were always delighted to see his kids demonstrate what they’d learned during the Friday celebration. He hasn’t been to Summer Plus in a few years, and we need him back.

We play Taboo in the creative writing workshop. On Monday, there’s a reason for it – I use it in a section on descriptive language. But it also serves as a great break when the kids’ attention starts to wander or when we come to a good stopping point and have some time to kill near the end of the session.

One year, I actually had one of my students mail me a story she had written after camp asking for my input. I was thrilled, and I thought she had potential as a writer. I may have gone overboard in my suggestions, however, because I never heard from her again.

Although we, the adult volunteers, will stay overnight at Cumberland Pines (half the camp will run Summer Plus, while the other half will go out and work on home repair projects during the week), it’s just a day camp for the teenagers. We will pick them up each morning, bring them to camp, and then take them home in the afternoons. That’s always interesting because you can see the variety of socio-economic conditions that exist in Grundy County.

Of course, there’s always the wonder of camp community at AIM. The friendships that are formed among the adult volunteers, the incredible worship experiences we have in the evenings, and the little gestures like the notes we write each other are part of what makes this such an incredible experience, and one I look forward to whenever I can make it. I got to do two (non-consecutive) AIM weeks last year. One was Summer Plus, the other was Kaleidoscope, an arts program for special-needs children, younger than the Summer Plus teens. I love getting to do both programs, because each has its blessings and challenges. This year, however, I was only able to manage one AIM week. Kaleidoscope took place last week without me. So I’m going to have to make the most of the one Summer Plus week.