It's late in the evening. My feet are tired. Music is reverberating in my ears. We've been dancing and mixing all night. Tonight is an incredible celebration, truly a hallmark event. This may be the last time we will all be together like this. While bits of personal and collective nostalgia have been creeping into our conversations with one another throughout the night, now there seems to be a greater sense of urgency, a need to capture all these moments before the night is over. The DJ steps to the microphone. From what seems like far away we hear a soothing voice: "May I please have your attention . . . . This is the last dance . . . ."
The last six or seven days of a camp season are extraordinary. We see staff scurrying about closing down their areas. Equipment and supplies are inventoried and stored for the winter. Staff are compelled to complete end-of-season paperwork. Everyone is encouraged to find the owners of abandoned lost-and-found clothing and gear. As we walk around camp, we see staff moving from place to place cleaning up the camp property. Campers may also be involved in this cleanup process through games such as a garbage pick-up (e.g. "the buffalo hunt").
Campers and staff busily accumulate l ists of e-mail addresses and phone numbers. They stop one another for a last round of picture taking, hugs, tears, and as one of my camp-owner friends noted, engaging in "all the good stuff you see in the movies."
The last week of camp is also marked by contrasts. For example, while camp is winding down, staff are encouraged to make every moment of the remaining days and nights special. We encounter staff who are restless, eager to put the summer behind them. We also run into staff who are having a really hard time figuring out how they will break away from camp, campers, and fellow staff with whom they've developed close relationships during the summer.
As we approach the end of the camp season, camp directors are understandably exhausted and eager to wrap things up. One of my friends recently commented, "You're so tired you think that no amount of rest can resurrect you." Directors know that in a few days the awesome burden of being responsible for the lives of so many people will be lifted from their shoulders.
One fascinating aspect of the last week before the end of a session and at the end of a season is what I refer to as "The Last Dance" phenomenon heard, for example, in such comments as: "I can't believe this is the last time we'll have Sunday brunch!"; "This is the last time we can relax down at the lake!"; "This is the last time we'll ever hang out together like this!"; "These are the last days before I head back to university!" What appears to be a sudden awareness of these last-time experiences contributes to a communal swelling of emotions fueled by a sense of urgency.
In the accelerating pace of the last week of the season, opportunities for process time, for closure-related learning for staff seems nonexistent. Scheduling challenges abound. I've also heard camp directors say, "Why bother? It's not likely that many of them will be returning anyway." In the rush to pack up and hit the road, however, a last opportunity to leave something behind for next summer's staff, to pass on accumulated wisdom is often overlooked.
An option would be to build in an additional day at the conclusion of the camp season. If this is contractually impossible for this season (at many camps staff depart at the same time as campers), then think about building in such an option for next year. A closure "event" could help ease the transition from camp to whatever comes next. Staff could rest up before hitting the road, and we would have the opportunity to engage them experientially, intellectually and emotionally in uninterrupted closure time. This approach also fits in with the belief that staff training is part of something larger — staff development — and is not limited to staff orientation at the beginning of the summer. A sound staff development process is ongoing.
One such closure-related learning event, appropriately cal led The Last Dance, is comprised of four components. The f irst phase, Opening, could be introduced during the last staff meeting. Staff would then have a few days to consider the meaning of The Last Dance and fol low through on some of the suggestions for closure.
Opening: Setting the Tone
Following is an example of the message you could share with staff.
"It's getting late. Everyone's tired. The orchestra leader quietly tells us that this will be the last dance. We move out to the dance floor one more time. We hold each other closely. We might reminisce about the past few hours. Perhaps this was a memorable event. Perhaps we're relieved that we'll be going home soon. Well, it's The Last Dance.
"Take a look around the room. There may be individuals here whom you've wanted to compliment for something they did or something that they said to help you. You may not have had the opportunity to give them feedback. There may be individuals with whom you had a misunderstanding, a disagreement, or an entanglement. Perhaps, considering the intensity of life at camp, you didn't have a chance to work things out to your mutual satisfaction. There may be individuals to whom you've wanted to apologize for something that you said or did. Perhaps the opportunity to do so never came up. Do you recall a conversation with someone that you haven't had an opportunity to finish? Is there someone you've wanted to get to know and your paths have not yet crossed?
"If any of these situations apply to you, you may choose to not say or do anything now. You may decide that there is nothing to gain by revisiting these situations. On the other hand, choosing to take some action now may help you to feel better about having been here this summer. You may leave camp in a better frame of mind and with fewer instances of 'I wish I had . . . .' Think about The Last Dance as you make preparations to leave camp."
The closure activities that fol low incorporate the three levels we see in camp life: individual (Personal Reflection), small group (Group Reflection), and community wide (Passing the Flame). They can be scheduled during the last few days or after the campers have left for home.
Personal Reflection: "My Summer at Camp"
Staff are asked to spread out, find a quiet area of the room, and working quietly and independent of each other, reflect on their experience at camp this summer. A specific amount of time is allocated for this activity. Staff are provided with a series of questions, a worksheet, to use as a guide. We let them know that we're not going to collect these worksheets. Note that staff are told that later they will be asked to move into (small) groups where they can talk with their peers about their experiences during summer.
The worksheet quest ions include references to: highlights of the summer; memorable learning that has occurred; what staff have learned about campers, themselves, and working with co-counselors and other staff; what surprised them; what they might have done differently; and most importantly, what they would like to take with them as they prepare to move forward into the next phase of their life's journey.
Group Reflection: "Our Summer at Camp"
In this activity, staff move into small groups and share with one another (to the extent that they feel comfortable) their responses to "My Summer at Camp." A designated period of time is allocated for this activity.
Passing the Flame
Then, working in the same groups, staff are asked to talk about specific, detailed advice that could be inspirational and helpful to the next year's staff. They are asked to record their group's work on a sheet of paper. The groups have a defined amount of time to complete this activity.
In the next part of this activity, the groups of staff are asked to take a large sheet of newsprint and list the most important words, phrases, and statements that capture the advice they would like to pass on to the next year's staff. They are also encouraged to decorate this document. A designated period of time is specified for this activity.
Then, usually after a short break, the entire staff convenes. We ask staff to remain in the same work groups. Each group then presents their work to the rest of us either through a designated spokesperson, several group members, or the entire group.
Finally, the staff moves through an imaginative, meaningful ritual (typically designed by the leadership team): Staff, in their groups, roll up these documents, then bind them and hand them to the director to store in a safe place until next summer. We let staff know that at some point during the next summer's staff orientation, these documents will be unrolled in a ceremony. The wisdom contained in these documents will be shared with the next season's staff.
The music stops. Silence. Our feet continue to move for a few moments. Dragged back from sweet reverie, we're aware of the bright lights now flooding the room. We embrace each other. Then, after a last round of goodbyes and heartfelt requests to stay in touch with one another, we slowly head out the door.
Bruce Muchnick, EdD, is a licensed psychologist in private pract ice based in Glenside, Pennsylvania. His work includes psychotherapy with youth and grownups, management consulting in a variety of organizational settings, and a "specialty" in camp psychology. He is the founder and managing director of Summer Camp Resources, P.C., a group of experienced professionals who provide a variety of organizational and mental health services to camp communities. You can contact the author at 215-885-1428 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Courtesy of Pali Adventures, Running Springs, CA