Mom May Be the Happiest Camper

The motor coach pulls out of the school parking lot at exactly 7 a.m. The frosty air outside pushes the mercury to a frigid 10 degrees, but inside the bus, running lights cast a warm glow over the faces of 35 eighth-graders — my daughter and her classmates.

I'm near the front of the bus where the chaperones keep a safe distance from the animated chatter creating a wall of sound between “us” and “them.” In addition to the assistant principal and a middle school teacher, the chaperone crew consists of three fathers and me — the only mother who signed on for a three-day field trip.

Never mind that I own a T-shirt that begs, “Stop me before I volunteer again.” I never listen to my own good advice. Instead, my bag is stowed in the bus's luggage bin, packed with layers of thermal underwear and fuzzy socks. I'm going to eighth-grade camp.

With just five months left of middle school, this eighth-grade class has started to morph from children into the high school students they'll soon become. The camp experience is an important rite of passage in that process, though they don't know it yet.

What they do know is that they're headed to northern Michigan's frozen “tundra,” where “school” will mean cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, building icehouses, and eating bacon for breakfast.

Only once during the four-hour bus ride does anyone ask if we're “there yet,” proving their growing maturity. Disproving it are jokes about who's using the onboard latrine, and why.

At last, we arrive at our destination.

The camp is the Leelanau Outdoor Center (LOC), a rustic lodge built in the 1930s and situated on 240 acres of pristine evergreen forests on the shores of Lake Michigan. Located in the heart of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, it offers outdoor learning programs throughout the school year designed to teach things that simply can't be presented in a traditional classroom. How many schools have a rock wall or a ropes course for climbing, after all?

The winter program presents an added dimension: braving the bitter cold while hiking through the snowy darkness. The students have been to LOC once before, but only in the warm fall — never in winter.

LOC's mission is to use outdoor education to help students build on positive character values, such as courage, determination, and creativity that can be carried over into daily life. Director Clark Shutt says the goal is to encourage young people to break through labels and limitations to accomplish individual and team goals.

“Our staff members challenge and inspire students to develop their inner strengths, to be considerate of each other and the environment, and to do their best,” he says.

They also put a huge premium on having fun.

Mr. Shutt says he hopes campers take their experiences back home and apply them to their daily lives.

Eighth grade may be the perfect time for a winter visit to a place like LOC. At this age, children need reassurance and self-confidence to discover the young adults they're meant to be. LOC uses team-building exercises, physical challenges, and group activities to pull students out of their social and personal comfort zones for some simple — but profound — life lessons.

For example, how many middle-schoolers can stand on a 2-foot-square piece of carpet? And can 12 students scale a 12-foot-high wall without a ladder, a rope, or a clue?

The answers are: five, if they're not afraid to touch each other, and yes, but only if they cooperate and work together as a team. It takes hours to learn these lessons because they involve communicating openly, taking risks, and earning trust.

Our first day at camp begins with group assignments and then activities such as skiing, sledding, and tracking. Meals put us in new groups; my dinner companions chat about the day's events and compare notes about what they liked best.

My daughter and I don't cross paths much during the day except when she walks past me and sneaks a snuggle. She's on her own here, as she should be.

Later, our campers gather in front of a roaring fireplace to hear a folk duo. It occurs to me that a year from now, when “freshman-itis” takes over, they might sit in stoic silence for a poem about hobos or a song about trains. For now, they're able to enjoy it and even sing along when they're asked to participate.

Then again, being campers, maybe they won't turn into typically jaded high school freshmen. Perhaps their LOC experiences will foster a willingness to risk being themselves, even in high school, when the pressure to fit in might otherwise put them on the path to conformity.

After the presentation, the folk singers pack their instruments while the fire crackles to a low glow. We bundle up into layers of snow pants, jackets, hats, and gloves to head out for a bonfire and a night hike.

This time, without group assignments, my daughter huddles close to me for the warmth of a familiar hug. She tells me all about a day filled with laughter and learning as we sink into the deep snow, feeling our way through twigs and branches.

Eventually, we walk along in silence while the moon drops over a snow-covered sand dune. The season's changing soon enough, so I'm glad I volunteered to come along — just to watch what can grow in winter.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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