Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ojibwe Camp Part 5 (Day 3)

Day three of the Ojibwe camp was a little bit different. It was Wednesday and we were supposed to spend three hours with the kids in the afternoon. We were invited to attend a pow wow in Leech Lake, but decided it would be better to stay at the camp so we could meet with one of the elders, Dave. It was also the only time that we would have to write the script for the campers without them around to alternate between making fun of us and ask us to play volleyball and kickball. Dave was kind enough to sit with us for a while and tell us about some of the history of the Ojibwe people, and to point us in the right direction to find some more traditional animal myths. As it seemed, most of the people at the camp couldn’t remember many of the specifics to the animal stories, so we turned to the internet, and eventually found some more information. After a few hours of research, we found one story in particular that stood out to us. It was the story of how the Crow found its purpose. It seemed like it would resonate with the kids that were at the camp. The basic storyline is the as follows:

Crow is sad because all of the animals in the forest have a purpose except for him. He visits a number of different animals and finds out that each one is well suited for his or her roll in the forest. He finds out that animals are scared because they don’t know how to use all of their natural abilities to stay safe from the fox that has been terrorizing them. The Crow teaches the animals to use their ears and legs to avoid the fox, and all is well in the forest. Crow has found that his purpose is to help others, and in doing so, he becomes a respected member of the animal society.

So, we set to work making it a contemporary story by throwing a lot of “stupids” and “nut” jokes into the dialogue so the campers would think it’s funny and cool. After the writing, we had lunch with the women who ran the main cabin, and the cook had made me a special meal because she knew that I couldn’t eat the pork chop she was serving… It made me feel special. We printed out a copy of the play and showed it to the head maintenance man, a war Veteran named Frank, was sitting out front smoking a cigarette. We had been talking to him a little bit before, so we thought it would be good to have him read the script before we gave it to Sally and Dave. Frank read it and then asked if he could have a copy so he could share it with his grand kids. A cool moment.

The bus was supposed to be back by three o’clock so we could have our three hours with the campers, but by six, they had still not returned. Brian and I were going to spend the evening at his family’s dairy farm in Finlayson, which was a fifteen-mile bike ride from the camp. Before leaving, we gave a copy of the script to Dave to look over, and another copy for Sally to read. As we were riding our bikes up the dirt road leading out of the camp, the bus finally showed up. The kids seemed sad to see us leaving…? They actually were waving at us as we rode by. We were not scheduled to work with the campers on Thursday, so we had a full day at the dairy farm to look forward to. Yahoo!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ojibwe Camp Part 4 (Day 2)

We woke up in the morning after a night of bad dreams, the first dreams that I remember having on the trip. The counselors had let us sleep in so we caught the tail-end of the breakfast rush. The second workshop we were teaching would start after lunch, so we had the morning to plan our strategy.

Brian and I went over some of the story ideas gathered from the campers on the first day of the workshop. The boys had decided that they wanted to be in a play entitled “Teenage Mutant Ninja Platypi”, an epic featuring the Platypi, their sensei, Mr. Potato Head, and his evil arch-nemesis, Peeler. At first glance, a solid premise. The girls’ inceptive idea? A zombie versus vampire musical set in a high school. Also, a promising start. Sadly, neither fulfilled our expressed original intention to devise a theater piece that would put traditional Ojibwe stories into a contemporary voice.

After some discussion, we decided to split them up by gender again. Brian took the girls to crate sculpture from found objects while I tried to get some more story ideas from the boys. After a few minutes of grumbling and the exchange of some choice words, our give and take went something like this:

“You look silly with that hair.”

“Thank you.”

“What are you?”

“I’m a playwright.”

“What’s that?”

“Someone who writes plays.”

“Why don’t you just say you write plays then?”

“Hmmm. That’s a good point.”

“Why do you wear glasses?”

“Cause I want to look smart.”

“Wannabe! Wannabe! “

Fighting sarcasm with sarcasm doesn’t work against 12- year-olds because if they feel you backing them into a corner, they’ll just use their immaturity to frustrate you.

“It’s time to start talking about the play you guys want to write”

“That sounds boring.”

“Trust me. It won’t be.”

“Trust me. It won’t be.”

“Are you seriously doing this right now?”

“Are you seriously doing this right now?”

“Okay, fine.”

“Okay, fine.”

“I’m an immature little brat.”

“I know you are, but what am I?”

It went on like that for a little while. When order was finally achieved, we began to go over the “Ninja Platypi” storyline. I figured that if I could make them think enough about the story they might get bored with it and move on.

“So, we’ve got three ninja Platypi, right?”


“Where did they come from?”

“The sewer.”

“Okay. Good. What made them become mutants?”

“A meteor from outer space?”

“Cool. So, not a meteor from Colorado?”

A collective nonplussed stare from the guys.

“Okay, never mind. So, why are they fighting people?”

“They’re protecting Mr. Potato Head from Peeler.”

“Obviously. I like the metaphor there.”

“You’re a nerd.”

“I am what I eat. Wait, why does Peeler want to kill Mr. Potato Head?”

“Cause, stupid, it’s…just…like what he wants to do, or whatever.”

“I don’t think that’s good enough. You know how in most comic books, there’s usually a reason why everyone is fighting.”

And, then the magic words:

“This story is stupid. I’m bored.”

“Okay, fine. What are some stories that you guys like? Something from your own tribe.”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on. Think.”

Then, a lot more arguing, some light name-calling, and finally:

“I don’t know. I guess there’s the story of how a bear got a short tail.”

“All right. Cool. Do you remember the story?”

For the next half an hour or so, we talked about different Ojibwe animal myths, and then one of the campers said that he knew another story, but he couldn’t tell me. I thought he was being annoying and said so, but then he informed me that the story could only be told when there was snow on the ground. Later, this was confirmed by one of the elders. It’s always fun when you over-assert yourself and then find out that you don’t have a leg to stand on.

Then, it was time to switch groups; the pack of girls descended. I tried to do the same thing with them, but they were far less cooperative. I’ve been trying to remember some of the things that they said to me, but I think the trauma of the moment has prevented me from reliving that memory.

After about a half an hour of abuse, I decided to let the girls draw. Again, feeling that I should participate, I pulled out a pen and wrote “Chekhov” in fancy, graffiti lettering. This caught the girls’ interest. They all wanted me to do their names, so I got to work on “Annette”. One of the girls took a black marker and covered the front and back of her left hand in ink. Then, she pressed her hand against one of the sheets of paper. At that moment, Brian walked over, and he and I both commented on how much we liked what she had done. She, immediately got up, walked over to the campfire, and burned her piece. I said that I wanted to at least take a picture of her with her black hand. Three minutes later, she was back having visited the ladies room to wash the ink off of her hand. Obstinate to the bitter end. Later that evening, Brian told me that while he was teaching his half of the workshop, that same girl had told him that, “If you’re not Native, you die.”

At the end of the three hours, we were both exhausted and our self-confidence cups half empty. The dinner bell rang, and everyone raced up to the main cabin for food and juice. They were serving wild rice, a staple of the Ojibwe diet, and pork chops, again. I had a lot of wild rice and a few dinner rolls, again. Then, we all piled into a school bus and drove out to the lake for a post dinner swim.

While we were at the lake, two girls who had decided to abstain from water sport began throwing rocks at the kids treading water by a submerged picnic table. None of the other counselors were around, so I tried to gingerly assert my authority. I told them that if they wanted to throw rocks, they should aim elsewhere so they wouldn’t accidentally brain someone. They told me that they were trying to hit one of the boy campers. I said that they shouldn’t. They didn’t listen. One rock sailed dangerously close to the boy’s head. He started to egg the girls on.

Half of me wanted to stop them. I am disappointed in what the other half was thinking. Finally, I stood really close to them, and since my presence had an effect similar to a skunk, they moved away. It feels good to finally be able to exert some influence around here. On the way home, one of the campers affectionately nicknamed “Little Dell”, threw up on the floor of the bus. One more thing I can check off on the bucket list.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ojibwe Camp Part 3 (Later That Evening)

Later that evening, the dinner bell rang, and we all headed up to the main building for some grub. It had been a long day, and it seemed for a minute that the kids were starting to warm up to us. They even asked if we would be participating in the evening game of kickball. We accepted. Up in the main building the cook, Lonnie, had made pork chops, and I became acutely aware that my city boy, Pescatarian lifestyle was not going to fly with the locals. I ended up having a heaping plate of rice and several dinner rolls, and spent the rest of the evening in carb-shock. Also, when I tried to sit at a table with some of the campers, they immediately got up and moved to a different table. I wanted to call my parents in tears and have them come pick me up.

After dinner, the kickball game was on. Brian and I got to be captains, and we each picked our teams. The game started, and everything was great. The kids were having fun. We were having fun. All was good. I even started to believe that we were starting to break through and that things would get better before we had to do another three-hour teaching session tomorrow. The kids were laughing. The counselors were sitting in chairs, entertained. All was right in the world. When darkness fell, the game ended and all of the goodwill that we had seemed to accumulate during the sporting session disappeared with the sunlight. I tried saying “Goodnight” to some of the campers and was met with mad dog stares. Thankfully, we had been given our own cabin, so at least we weren’t tormented by the kids during the night. It’s the little joys that keep you going in summer camp.

During the night, I was awakened by a strange noise that I thought was coming from just outside the cabin. It sounded like someone or something was peeing on or near our bikes which we had left resting outside. The noise would come and go, but it was persistent enough to get my imagination going. Was it a giant bear? Had the campers decided to take turns urinating on our bikes? What was happening? I grabbed my headlamp and woke Brian up. In my mind, it was going to be a battle and I wanted back up. Turns out, it was a very, very large moth that had found her way into our cabin. She was beating her wings against the window and metal siding of the cabin. So, I killed her and went to bed. Nature zero, Sharif one.

Ojibwe Camp Part 2 (The First Session)

Immediately after introductions, we launched into the first of four three-hour sessions with the campers. Brian and I were standing in the center of the sacred circle trying to settle the hellions down, with no help from the counselors. And, very quickly we realized we were going to have to move on to Plan B. Plan A, which was to keep all of the campers together and work as a large unit had failed miserably in about five minutes, and taking into account that we didn’t have a Plan C, all of our hopes now rested on Plan B. We only were able to have a five minute emergency pre-workshop meeting to reevaluate our lesson plan based on the ages of the kids, number of campers (ten), and their seeming lack of interest, concentration, and discipline, so we decided to separate the them by gender so they would be less likely to act out. Brian would show one group how to make sculpture out of found objects while I did a writing exercise with the other half, and start to talk to them about some ideas for the final show at the end of the week. It was Plan B or epic failure.

I took the boys over to a picnic table near the eternal campfire, and told them that we would start things off by doing ten minutes of continuous writing. They weren’t into that at all. I tried to exert my male dominance. That didn’t work either. I looked over at Brian; he seemed to be making some progress with the girls. Now, I had to make something happen. In the end, with a mixture of pleading and threatening, I got the boys to start writing. And, slowly, the picnic table lapsed into silence. I couldn’t believe it was working. As a part of teaching, I figured it’d be a good idea to write with the kids, so I pulled out my journal and began to write about how scared I was, and how I thought that all of the kids hated us. The silence lasted for about eight minutes. Then, they were over it, which I can’t blame them for. It’s one of my most hated exercises that I do every day, and I’ve been writing for a pretty good while now. Some of the kids wanted to share their writing, which I was excited about until I heard what they had written. One camper had used the time to write about how much he hated one of the girls in the camp. Another had spent the entire eight minutes repeating the same line, “I have nothing to say”, over and over and over and over again. In the end, it probably wasn’t the best exercise to start with, but it really drained some of the massive reservoir of anger the kids carried around with them. I then tried to engage them in a conversation about the theater piece Brian and I wanted to make with them. Another mistake. Nobody cared what we were doing, and I ended up watching them in silence as they traded insults with the girls who, by this time, had also staged a mutiny against Brian. Time to switch.

The girls were far more intimidating than the boys. Boys at that age are pretty much stupid; there is no getting around it. They raise their hands for no reason. They make fun of girls they like…? They like to play kickball. There really isn’t a whole lot of depth yet. I remember that age and not really caring about much except for video games and basketball. The girls, on the other hand, are schemers. And, who can blame them? They have to put up with twelve- to fourteen-year-old boys (pre-humans as Brian calls them), and that’s enough to turn anyone over to the dark side. The gang of girls trudged up to the picnic table, sat down, and proceeded to ignore me and everything I was saying. I got insecure and pretended that I had to ask Brian something, when I was really just trying to get the hell away from their piercing stares and comments for a minute. Another grand mistake. I accidentally left my journal on the table when I walked away. They were on that thing like a sick gazelle in the Kalahari. From across the campfire, I could hear them reading it to each other out loud, and then Leticia, one of the more verbose campers, shouted out that they didn’t hate me…yet. I, again, was transported back to junior high. Had I learned nothing? Show no weakness. Make fun of everyone else and be vicious about it so they won’t come after you. Be a part of the pack. Make sure to ostracize someone else so you don’t have to worry about getting picked on. All hard earned lessons that had fallen by the wayside after teaching respectful, polite undergrads in San Diego. The girls and I ended up doing some drawing, and they realized that you can come up with some pretty fun nicknames for Sharif (Sha-queef, Sha-beef, etc.). In the end, they settled on the Mad Hatter, which was fairly innocuous considering some of the other options available.

At the end of the session, we brought all the campers back together to play “Pass the Clap”. Sadly, there were no campers that saw the joke potential in that one. It must be a generational thing. Anyway, the premise of the game is to have everyone stand in a circle. One person starts by clapping. The person to their left times their clap to match the first persons. Then, the second person turns and claps with the third person in line. In essence, passing the clap around a circle. The game can be fun when everyone is paying attention because the clap can work its way around circle faster and faster. We finally got everyone to stand in a circle. They started the game. Even the cool kids seemed to be into it. Then, after a few minutes, one of the campers decided to pass the clap by slapping the guy next to him in the face. A fight ensued. The original offender ended up with a bloody nose, and that was the end of our first days work. I spent the next forty-five minutes in the bathroom hanging out with the kid who got his ass kicked, trying to make him feel a little better.

Ojibwe Camp Part 1 (Arrival and Introduction)

Brian and I rolled up to the Ojibwe Language camp with our bikes on the back of a Toyota Corolla. Not exactly the entrance that we were hoping to make, but Brian’s uncle offered to drive us up from Minneapolis and, in my own mind at least, I would far prefer a ninety-mile car ride over a ninety-mile bike ride. Just saying. So, we got dropped off at summer camp, and walked down to the community lodge where the campers were spending the afternoon learning about the Ojibwe history. Walking into this situation, we had no idea how many campers we’d be working with, what their ages were…in fact, we hadn’t found out the physical address for the camp until just a few days before we were supposed to get out there. We had only been invited to this camp a couple of week before, and after we sent several emails requesting, then asking, then pleading for more specific details, it became clear that we were going to have to go in blind.

On the ride up, I had fallen asleep and had a mini-nightmare that it would be a camp of fifty or more kids, and Brian and I would be overwhelmed and thrown in a ditch in the backwoods. This turned out not to be the case. Walking down to the makeshift arbor that we later found out was the sacred circle, I was starting to have an internal freak out. Working with Native American youth was the whole reason for doing this summer trip, and now that we were actually going to have twelve hours over the next six days to conceive, rehearse and perform an original theater piece, everything seemed a little scarier.

The campers were in a state of semi-concentration, half listening to the lecture, half attacking each other verbally or with rocks. This, we eventually realized, was about as much attention they were willing to offer anyone. Sally Fineday, the coordinator of the camp, finished giving her lecture, and then introduced us to the campers. She then told us to get up and tell the kids a little about what we were doing. Brian and I stood up and were immediately met with an explosion of name-calling. Before this camp, I had kind of forgotten how ruthless and demonic twelve- to fourteen-year-old kids can be. I will never forget that again. It was like I had been transported back to junior high (the beginning of the bad years). After quieting the group down, we began to give them our spiel on what we were doing and why we are doing it… The kids couldn’t have cared less. They were having too much fun making fun of the two hippie-looking fools from California.

Awkward and demoralizing introduction? Check.