We got to camp with a lot of time to spare before the opening ceremonies. Taz brought his own basketball, giving him an even better chance at meeting kids since the ball situation at camp proved to be limited at times. He spent his free time shooting hoops beside another kid, but they didn’t really talk with each other. In fact, there were more kids hanging out on their own than there were groups, many of them cautiously moving around everyone else as they tried to see where they fit in. A lot of parents were still there, and the kids kind of hung back with the faces they knew as they sought out something familiar among the weird and unknown. Taz did the same, though he purposely spent more time on the courts than with me to assert his independence.
Opening ceremonies came and I headed down with the rest of the camp. I saw Taz briefly but never quite saw where he sat until the ceremony was halfway over. He sat by himself as far away as the rest of the group as he could, only getting up when his name was called as they lined up in tribes. I silently prayed that a friend would manifest himself into this group he had just been placed in, and then let it go to fate.
My daughter called out the names for her own tribe one by one. She named off a new kid I had noticed earlier, “Ben”, and he left his dad to come forward. Something caught under his shoe however, and he tipped forward into a rolling fall in front of the whole camp. He appeared to brush it off, but you could tell he was shaken. It was definitely apparent when the poor kid was seen moments later with his dad, trying his hardest not to cry and failing miserably. I caught up with DQ a little while later and we both discussed a plan on how to help both Ben and Taz get to know each other to help ease some of the inevitable homesickness if nothing were done.
Tribe meetings ended, and Taz had found a familiar face in the dining hall. It was a kid who went to his school who he didn’t really get along with. But being that both of them didn’t have any friends here, they were suddenly the best of friends with each other. They were playing Foosball on one of the tables, trying to figure out how to play without a ball since they couldn’t find one. For now, they were settling with a pine cone. I could see Ben circling the table like a vulture, obviously interested in what they were doing, but totally unsure how to step in. To top it off, the tears hadn’t quite left his demeanor, and he was fighting them off as best as he could. This meant he was holding his t-shirt up over his face to hide the fact that he was on the verge of tears, even though his red-rimmed eyes were giving him away.
“Taz,” I said, beckoning him at an opportune moment, “see that kid over there?” I asked him. “He’s having a really hard time right now and doesn’t know anyone.” I explained what had happened at opening ceremonies after Taz had left, and Taz made a noise of sympathy. “I think he needs a friend just as bad as you did. Do you think you can ask him to join you?” Taz gave me a pained look.
“I don’t know, Mom,” he said. “What if I did it later tonight?”
“It will be too late,” I said. “I’m afraid he’s going to try and go home.” Taz gave me a half-hearted promise that he’d try, and then went back to the table to play.
“I got a ball, so I get first dibs at playing,” another kid said, coming up to Taz and his school friend. Both boys made groans of how unfair that was, but let him take over on one of the sides of the table. Meanwhile, Ben was getting a little braver and coming closer to the table. He finally made a bold move and just sat right next to where they were playing Foosball. Taz glanced over and saw the new kid.
And just like that, they became a group of four friends.
I couldn’t stick around at camp. My limited vacation time dictated that I would be working at my job this week rather than my usual week off chaperoning at camp. But before I left, I saw that Taz’ group was strong in their bond, and appeared to be growing as more and more kids got to know each other. Taz wouldn’t be alone this year, and several more kids would come home to their parents with stories of the new friends they had made in such a short time. In fact, groups were forming all over camp, and the faces of strangers were now starting to look a lot more like friends.
The unfamiliar can be scary – whether you’re 11 years old, 34 years old, 48 years old, or whatever age you are. And when you’re alone in a sea of strangers, it’s hard not to feel totally alone in your predicament as well. But really, all anyone wants is a sense of familiarity when surrounded by the unknown. Sometimes all it takes is one kind gesture for the unknown to become something a little friendlier.
And sometimes, we have to make that first step.
A shorter version of this two-part story will publish in the Press Democrat on July 27.