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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, February 7

Gapers Block

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I have an addiction problem. It's my car. I can't get enough of it. I drive a lot, more than I should, and I know that. I live within walking distance from several decent enough grocery stores. I live within biking distance of a Whole Foods, farmers markets and several drop sites for organic produce co-ops. I have a granny cart, but I use my car to get the biweekly pallet of groceries required by the people over here. Aside from laziness and too much reliance on the convenient stuff-hauling capabilities of the car, the best thing I do with my car is drive other people's kids around, and I just can't stop.

I am a Girl Scout leader. We started up again for the 2007-08 session three weeks ago, and already I've driven a van-load to and from camp in Indiana, and up to the Emily Oaks Nature Center in Skokie for canoe training and back. A few days later I took a van load up to the Skokie Lagoons for an amazing morning of canoeing and bird watching, and then back downtown. Not having a van is not an option for me at the moment. A few of us driving a full van makes more sense than all of us driving our individual kids all over the place. Does the benefit of planting a bunch of girls in nature on a regular basis fill in the footprint I make with all of the driving I do?

I've been a Girl Scout leader for five years. When my daughter was 6, her buddy was in a Girl Scout troop, and I signed her up for the troop, imagining that it would be very similar to my experience with Girl Scouts as a kid; without the Pocono mountains, and with a more urban flair, but comparable. The troop I signed Lou up for was small, with about 10 girls and one leader, a very nice, well-meaning woman who, like all leaders, was volunteering her free time to the troop. They did a lot of scrapbooking. They scrapbooked just about every meeting, as far as I could tell. Louise came home with a scrapbook filled with pictures torn out of magazines of people camping, and some actual photos of other girls in her troop camping the previous year, but there was no actual camping going on. Just the scrapbooking.

I have a low tolerance for ultra crafty things like scrapbooking, I don't get any kind of thrill when wandering down the aisles of the craft store and seeing all of the cute borders and page decorations and packs of fancy fonts. In fact I feel a little overwhelmed and underachieving. My kids aren't ever going to have neat and tidy representations of all of the fun they've had as kids, unless they make them themselves, and that's not happening anytime soon. The only part of scrapbooking that really ever interested me was the idea of scrapbooking, having a cool book to put all of the paper junk that you want to save, and having it be something entertaining to look at. Like the journals of Dan Eldon. So, when my daughter joined Girl Scouts and spent most of the year scrapbooking about fake camping trips, it seemed fundamentally wrong to me but I had absolutely no right to complain since I wasn't the one doing the work of leading the troop. It was time to step up to the plate and become a leader myself.

A couple of my friends were thinking the same thing, so we figured out what we needed to do to get the ball rolling, and started a troop. We started with 10 girls, and now, in our fifth year, we have 50. We've worked out the kinks over the years, and now have five active groups of different age-level girls (Daisies, Brownies, Juniors, Cadettes and Seniors), all meeting at the same time in the same space. We split up for most of our activities, but have made it a priority to throw them all together on a regular basis. Our favorite place to do this is at Girl Scout Camp.

The Girl Scouts of Chicago (soon to be melodically renamed The Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana) currently owns two camps, one in Wisconsin and one in Indiana. We have been taking our troops to them at least three times a year for the past four years, sometimes four. I would say that 75 percent of the trips we've taken, we have been the only troop in the camp. Meaning that of the thousands of Girl Scouts and the hundreds of troops in the Chicago council, there aren't too many doing much camping. It's sad, really, because I never feel luckier than I do when I am at camp with a bunch of girls. It is the best part of being involved in Girl Scouts, and makes up for any difficulties I might have with other aspects of the job like paperwork, fundraising, being organized. Not that I have any problems with organizing paperwork, nope! Not me.

We took 31 girls to the Indiana camp just before Columbus Day — you may remember it as that boiling hot weekend when the Cubs lost. The youngest girls were 6 and camping with us for the first time, the oldest girls were 14-15. Many had been with us since the beginning, and were now on their 12th trip. The only time anyone cried was over bee stings and minor bumps. Even one of our new 6-year-olds got stung by a bee and though her eyes got a little watery, she just said, "I got stung by a bee!" more surprised than anything. It seems old hat to me, having witnessed it many times now, but when we take new chaperones along for camping weekends the one aspect of camp that is most surprising to them is how easy the girls are.

We keep a pretty loose agenda at camp, believing that kids need time and freedom to decide for themselves what they want to do while they are there, with a few hikes and organized games thrown in each day for good measure. A few years ago all of the girls got involved in making a fairy village behind the lodge. They were busy from morning to night working on it, all of them absorbed in their miniature worlds. We hated to disturb them, so for the most part we didn't. In the winter, when we stay in a lodge at the camp, there are hours of indoor play, cooking, knitting, talking, followed by everyone getting the notion to pile on the winter gear and go for a stomp through the snowy woods. Periods of high activity and periods of rest. The adults tend to station themselves around the fire, doing what grown women do best: solve the problems of the world while swilling tea. The girls are very self-sufficient, requiring very little attention from the adults. There is always a big table of paper, magazines to cut up, string, yarn, glue, markers and fabric scraps available for any manner of project that anyone has a mind to do.

I say that we are hands off, but while we are gabbing and knitting by the fire, we keep pretty close tabs on where the girls are at, physically and emotionally. We don't necessarily intervene whenever there is trouble on the horizon, because one of the things that you learn when you are in a big group is how to get along with others. Constantly interfering, micromanaging adults would cancel out that learning experience. But sometimes it's necessary that we step in and help girls over the bumps. A couple of trips ago we were all hanging out in the lodge, it was morning, a gorgeous fall day. The girls were mostly content to be hanging out inside, listening to music and playing. I noticed one of the girls was getting a little down, talking about wanting to go home, feeling like it was all a little too much. I told her to get her coat, and we'd go outside. She said that going outside wouldn't help, she just didn't like camp. I insisted. She got her coat and the second she stepped outside she was a different kid. All of her troubles disappeared, and she and I hiked around, down to a stream where we floated giant yellow beech leaves on the water. She told me that she'd never played in the woods before. I felt incredibly privileged to be with her on her first trip. When we got back to camp, the fire builders had been at work and had built a gorgeous morning fire in the outdoor fire ring, and we got to spend the rest of that beautiful day sitting by the fire and playing.

Food is of course a big part of the trip. Regular feeding of 30 girls is the hinge upon which the entire operation rests. Hungry girls are crabby, sad, homesick girls, and that doesn't work out so well. In the weeks leading up to camp the girls are in charge of planning the menu and coming up with the shopping list. We take them to the store and they read the labels and buy everything needed for the trip. We've got vegetarians, vegans, girls with food allergies and a few picky eaters, but all of that is part of the planning and everyone manages to get really well fed. Once we are at camp the girls are divvied up into four groups and they rotate the four big camp jobs: Cooking, Clean Up, Hostessing and Fire. Everyone takes care of their own dishes, everyone is responsible for their own stuff, and everyone helps out to the best of their ability. We rely more and more on the older girls to help the little girls figure out what they need to be doing. Sometimes it seems like we just get done cleaning up from one meal before it's time to start the next, but why should camp be any different from life with children anywhere? No job is better or worse than another. Clean up, which one would assume would be the low job on the totem pole, invariably turns into a loud dance party in the kitchen.

I think the hardest part of all of this is allowing the girls to do the work. It would be much easier for me to take the sponge from the hand of a girl who is gingerly dabbing at an egg covered skillet and give it a good scrubbing myself. It's much harder to let her wash it, no matter how long it takes. Lord knows I already know how to wash a pan, but a kid might not be as familiar with pan scrubbing, and may leave the kitchen feeling like she's really accomplished something. It's amazing how much work kids can do individually and as a group, given the time, space and respect, without it really seeming like work. Whether or not that happens is directly related to the attitude of the adult. If the adult is harried and impatient, it's going to seem a whole lot more like work for everyone, especially for the adult. Most of the girls are eager to take care of their jobs and their belongings, although we do have some world class shirkers. Shirkers are generally in the 9- to 11-year-old range who, when it's time to gather firewood or mix up some pancakes, have a knack for fading away, seemingly unnoticed. My favorite solution for this problem is to assign a 6-year-old to the task of seeking out the shirker to pester her until she figures out that there is no hiding from an enthusiastic 6-year-old.

On this most recent trip, I brought my giant green tarp and each night we hiked it up to the playing field and spread it out. My fabulous tarp easily fits 30 or more people of varying ages, all laying on their backs looking up at the stars. On the second night, one of the littlest girls, feeling a little overwhelmed, couldn't bring herself to lay down. She had never found herself in this particular situation, being a very little girl underneath a big night sky, with a huge group of giggling, chattering girls, far away from home, family and the comforting sounds of the city. She sat next to me, awkwardly craning her head back to look up at the stars. No amount of cajoling from her friends or from the adults on either side of her could convince her that it was safe to lie down, so we let her be. One of my favorite things to do when looking up at the sky is to imagine that instead of looking up into the sky, that I am instead on the bottom of the Earth, being held to the surface by good old gravity, and am looking down instead of up. Try it sometime, it will freak you out. It freaked out that little girl, that's for sure. But when she saw the whole group raise their feet up in the air as we imagined that we were standing in space, she could no longer resist and down she went, feet up. I felt really happy that that particular little girl finally felt safe enough with all of us to lay down and allow herself to be overwhelmed by the vastness of nature and space.

I think there is a lot to be said for returning to the same place again and again as a child, and really knowing what the lay of the land is like. Going back to the same camp with this group of girls so many times over the years has allowed them to feel comfortable there, on land which has been used by Girl Scouts for many generations. A lot of incredible things happen when time is allowed to pass with a group of girls, on a piece of forest land. They get really comfortable with themselves, with each other and with the place. They now go back to camp, especially the Wisconsin camp, with a sense of going back home. They see places where they've left their mark, even if it's invisible to everyone but themselves. They remember campfires, and crazy dance parties, and hilarious skits, and these incredible, gorgeous, safe woods that they get to play in. They will remember it when they are old.

I think about my environmental footprint, just like everyone does, or should. I know what damage I do. I am aware of the cans that I didn't recycle, the scraps that I didn't compost, the many lazy drives to the grocery store. I have guilty feelings about the disposable diaper years. It's got to be a hell of a lot easier to blissfully go about your business if you don't get hung up over global warming, or fret about the lack of a working recycling plan in a major city, one in which you may happen to live. Hiding from the truth doesn't work for me, I'm too much of an information addict to ever be able to ignore what's happening around me, but neither does living a life filled with despair and angst. That does no one any favors, especially if you have kids looking to you for clues about how to get along in the world. As much damage as my presence, and the presence of those I've brought along with me does, I hope that I'm balancing my personal path of destruction with my commitment to getting a lot of kids out into the woods as much as possible. Anyone can do the same, there are plenty of kids out there that would probably love to go camping.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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