A change of place can mean a change of attitude. A new setting can mean a willingness to try new things. That's what my assistant, Julia Feldmeier, discovered last week at Camp Moss Hollow.
Let's face it: Hopping up and down on your left leg while flapping your arms is embarrassing. At least it was for this reporter, who threw down her notepad to join Moss Hollow campers and counselors last week in a group warm-up exercise and felt as conspicuous as a zit on prom night. Yeah, everyone else was hopping and flapping, too, but still. It is embarrassing, isn't it?
For Moss Hollow campers and counselors, it apparently isn't. The secret, explained Jamaal Parker, a 14-year-old camper from Maryland, is that "when [campers] are out there with all these people, they don't care what other people think."
Admittedly, not everyone was so devoid of self-consciousness.
To the left was a 13-year-old girl, new to Moss Hollow, who halfheartedly went through the motions and then stopped altogether. She wasn't disdainful or put out -- just shy.
She'd learn soon enough: "Sooner or later, they'll catch up with everybody else," Jamaal said of new and aloof campers.
Jamaal is a case in point. "I never had much confidence before I went to camp," he said in an interview three days after he'd returned from camp. Now, after three summers at Moss Hollow, "I talk more to people, and I'm not as shy. I'm a lot more open."
More open, maybe, but still humble. "What he's not telling you is that he brought home two medals -- one in basketball and one in soccer," said Michael Parker, Jamaal's father. Jamaal had never played soccer formally before; that he happened to be good at it was a sweet surprise for both him and his father.
It's those surprises -- discoveries of untapped talents -- that make Michael such a strong advocate of camp.
"I knew he would be nervous at first," Michael said, "but just as with any experience, you have to get over that -- get beyond it and then watch yourself grow." Besides, he added, "the more he experiences, the more he'll probably want to do."
Like, say, soccer? Jamaal said he might try out for the high school team as a freshman this fall. Michael already is banking on sending him to a soccer camp next summer, "and then hopefully, if he gains skills, he can bring them back here," to Moss Hollow, where Jamaal aspires to be a leadership trainee in a couple of years.
Beyond soccer, the possibilities abound. "I wonder if I can be a lifeguard," Jamaal mused.
"You can do anything you want," Michael replied. "Just put forth the effort."
Ah, effort. A stigmatized word in the world of many teenagers who, as Michael noted, have adopted the mantra: "So what? What's the big deal?"
"Kids are different these days," Michael said. "You just have to have that demeanor." That's part of camp's appeal for Jamaal: At Moss Hollow, it's cool to try new things and get swept away by the spirit of camp, of teamwork. And it's okay to care. (Except, of course, when you're feeling absurdly silly bouncing up and down like a one-legged blue jay, in which case not caring is commended.)
That's why at Moss Hollow it's cool to win the "Golden Broom," the award that's bequeathed to the cleanest cabin and that, incidentally, went to Jamaal's cabin last week.
"It's just a broom spray-painted gold," Jamaal conceded, but he said his cabin was still psyched to win it. Far better than being dubbed a "dirty bird," as many other cabins were. (Ew!)
It's not an honor he'll brag about to his friends at home, though. "I don't really tell people I go to camp," Jamaal said. Mostly because they won't get it, or they'll pretend not to care, but possibly because -- outside the comfort of Moss Hollow -- he's still a little self-conscious.
"I still think he's shy," Michael said, recalling a time recently when he arrived early to pick up Jamaal from a school play audition. He'd come straight from his job as a sheet metal worker in Beltsville and was still wearing his overalls, dirty and smudged from work.
"I heard the little girl next to him say, 'Is that your dad?' He looked at me and said, 'No.' Then I got loud on him and said: 'What do you mean? I'm not your dad? Come on, you don't love me or something?' "
Jamaal laughed as his father retold the story, shaking his head as if to say, "No way, man, that wasn't shyness -- that was embarrassment!"
Either way, it's nothing a few more sessions of one-legged hopping can't cure.
Hop To It
Vienna's Patricia Pearson gets together with friends every two months or so for a great meal. They could go to a restaurant. Instead, they do a potluck dinner and donate what they would have spent dining out to a good cause.
This year's good cause? Send a Kid to Camp, which Patricia and her friends enriched by $365. (Just a dollar a day!)
My thanks to them and everyone else who's helping us inch to our goal of $650,000. Yesterday, we stood at $194,288.99. Here's how to make a tax-deductible contribution:
Make a check or money order payable to "Send a Kid to Camp" and mail it to Family and Child Services, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.
To contribute online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly. Click on the icon that says, "Make a Donation." To donate by MasterCard or Visa by phone, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions on our taped message.