Well, I survived my summer camp experience and I am back in my apartment in Volgograd. I have it to myself right now, possibly for 21 days as I think Wesley has gone to do the summer camp that I was originally scheduled to do.
I can’t say that it was easy, but it was not as difficult as I feared and because I was used to the routine and the surroundings by the end of the first week, I knew I could cope with the next two. I did have a top-up snack package which helped make the last week a little easier for me, as I had only planned for 10 days. Clothes-wise I got by without doing any laundry by doubling-up, keeping the same clothes on 2 days in a row.
I was very lucky to have sympathetic colleagues, who had their own struggles in new situations and could understand mine, and were able to be quite flexible in changing the schedule as circumstances changed – one of them had to leave for a few days due to illness and during that period I felt much more involved and indispensable in helping supervise the children and taking responsibility for the activities. However for a lot of the time I felt a little bit like a spare wheel – I didn’t know what was happening much of the time, no-one told me if I was needed or not needed or what I was supposed to be doing, and sometimes I got this information seconds before things started. This was partly because I don’t speak Russian, but also because I was in a separate room as the only male leader, and most of the organisation discussions took place in the womens’ room without me. There was an agenda meeting with the kids every morning but most of this was in Russian, and more frequently than not it started without anyone letting me know. There was a schedule pinned to the board most days but this frequently changed and only had the names of activities which didn’t always help much.
With my club I was on firm ground, I knew what time it was every day and had all the material I needed, and I got exclusively good feedback from all the students involved – it was the most popular of the three clubs. It consisted of puzzles and active games, we had to hold it outdoors in the face of mosquitoes, flies, rain and in one case, evening darkness, but I always managed to keep the kids occupied for the required 90 minutes.
Lessons were also mostly straightforward, in general I alternated between full lessons with the Intermediate group (mostly the older children) and 45 minutes each with the Pre-intermediate and Elementary groups. Elementary was difficult, basically my part of the lesson was active games and it got very repetitive as we kept practicing the same constructions again and again – I did a lot of improvising (because most of the programme had been written in Russian and I had no idea what it was telling me to do). But the kids always enjoyed it. Sometimes I didn’t get the information about which class I was teaching or the material I needed until the last minute (or sometimes even during the lesson), but it was not complex material and did not require a lot of preparation.
Most days there was an evening performance, and most evening performances I was asked to be host, or co-host. There was always a clumsily-phrased script but I didn’t like it, as long as I knew the gist and sequence of events I preferred to just improvise, but this annoyed my co-hosts who were determined to stick rigidly to the lines in the programme! We had lots of dances, songs, theatrical performance, and there were usually some fun games. Some of the more unusual presentations were a rap opera, a mime act, and a horror story. The kids always dressed up, I occasionally got into the spirit with my Sherlock costume, or a Superman logo on my chest, or one time, a hastily-assembled Scottish ghost complete with crutch and dangling eye!
There were usually daytime activities and on a few occasions I was given instructions about these – I organised a sports olympiad (though this was abandoned after torrential rain), I had a role as Sherlock during a Tour of London, I composed most of the clues for a Mystery Tour, the clues were hidden around the dormitory and surroundings with directions to the next one each time. Other days I wasn’t told anything about these activities and only found out after they started, or sometimes after they finished. I think there might have been a couple of events the kids did which I still don’t know about.
There was one group of kids who didn’t like most of the scheduled events and just wanted to play football all the time. As the only guy, and usually the only leader not really doing anything, they were allowed to do so provided I supervised them. As the camp went on I became less of a supervisor and more of a participant until one day we had a full-fledged football match, the four opt-outs against me and some of the other younger kids. I wowed them with my football skills (I’m not that good but kids are easily impressed) and our team held its own, though we still lost overall (10-7 might have been the final score).
There were also a few whole-camp events which were outside our school’s scheduled programme, so we had to move things around to make space. There was a Fairytale Princess Event (for girls), a Russian Hero Event (for boys), the opening ceremony show, and the closing Gala Performance, at which our camp sang Beautiful World by Westlife, and I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing by Aerosmith.
I got on well with the kids but sometimes they made me angry with their behaviour and that affected my mood for the following day. It is difficult to go for 21 days without some space and time to yourself, especially when you are naturally one of life’s solo fliers. I missed one Candle Talk because I had gone to sleep early (after a child was using the water dispenser as a water cannon and getting electronic equipment wet), and while I attended the final Candle Talk I was so upset that all the children were talking and whispering while some of the younger children were trying to describe their experiences that I declined to give my own opinion, on the basis that they were being rude and not listening anyway.
The following day was the last day, I gave all the children their certificates (we had found something for each of them to be the best at!) and there were some morning activities involving connections and friendship (tying pieces of wool around each others’ necks) but I was not really in the mood to pretend to be happy and friends with everyone, so I left them to it. I went to my room to rest and wait for the Gala Performance (they had said they wanted me to say a few words there) but I wasn’t sure when it was, and eventually when I heard music across the camp I realised they had all gone without me. It was probably better that way, so the focus was on the kids not on me – the rest of the groups in the camp seemed to be increasingly obsessed with the strange English Sherlock, always wanting to say hello or get me to say various things to them in Russian.
With a bit of distance between me and the kids, the following day when we all left was actually quite easy rather than awkward. Some of them did make a point of coming up to me to say thank-you but most were just happy to be seeing their parents again so I didn’t mind at all that I didn’t have to go through a tortuous series of emotional farewells.
Galina and Eduard arrived to take the last of the materials back to the office (most had been taken away in a minibus 2 days earlier), and there was room for me in the taxi. The other leaders had more forms to fill in at the factory that runs the camp so that they could get paid.
So I have done some shopping and some laundry, I have eaten some fried chicken, and caught up with some TV shows I missed. My internet data ran out 2 days before the end of camp (I thought I had bought 10 GB but it stopped shortly after 5 GB) so I have been catching up on the internet too.
Overall I think 3 bad days out of 20 is a pretty good ratio, particularly as I went in expecting to only do 10 days. We did have kids leaving the camp, 1 due to a broken arm, 2 due to fever, but two of them came back, and while most kids had good days and bad days, there was a lot more red than blue at Candle Talk, none of the kids were persistently unhappy, and I got on well with all of them up until the last couple of days, including the troublemakers and quiet ones.