By Andrew Rock
It has been 18 years since I started at the Bank Street School for Children as a 4/5. I graduated from the School for Children in 2009, worked as a camp counselor and lifeguard for several summers after that, and this summer I am assisting the Camp office by taking photographs and doing other odd administrative jobs. I keep coming back to Bank Street because of the exceptional experience I had as a student and staff member and because I continue to learn and grow every time I return. More than in past years, it has become clear to me that what makes Bank Street such a special place is the attention paid by camp leadership and staff to providing a nurturing space for every camper and staff member.
This summer, I have been witness to this total commitment and the constant actions they undertake to maintain such a space. The focus is enshrined in the Staff Handbook, which I and every other member of the staff had to read through and were quizzed on prior to starting work with camp. The section “Roles & Expectations” starts, “It is the first concern of each staff to create and maintain a physically and emotionally safe place for each camper. This will foster campers’ sense of creativity and fun.” The camp obviously takes this guideline as their number one priority. There have been a number of instances when Dylan, the Associate Director, has remarked to me, “Now that’s a happy camper,” with real pleasure, referring to a beaming kid nearby, evidence that it takes the kids being happy for the staff to be happy. And the system seems to work — the campers appear be having a great time. Recently, a mother came in to sign her daughter up for another couple weeks of camp: “She’s having a ball and she doesn’t want to leave.”
So much work goes into giving children these experiences. The administrators move frenetically, constantly assessing whether camp activity is up to standards, insisting on knowing about everything that goes on so that they can respond as is necessary. On my first day of work this summer, Dylan told me, “Cookie can’t ever be surprised about something that happened at camp. She needs to know everything.” The administrators are always ready to hear about situations that threaten the well-being of campers and they are always taking steps to remedy them. This constant buzz and attention has great results.
The commitment to and know-how for creating and maintaining a physically and emotionally safe place trickles down to the campers. Personally, I credit Bank Street for making me a conscientious and caring person with the awareness of what creates healthy situations, and for inculcating the ability to foster and maintain these spaces.
Most going through Bank Street are instilled with this awareness, sense of values, and presence of mind but this does not mean I or any other staff member is error-free. Far from it. Besides encouraging integrous behavior, Bank Street helps foster an awareness of right (and wrong) action. One day a week ago, feeling the 3:00pm blues as I checked children out for dismissal, I made a small slip-up. A camper came up to me with his guardian to check out. In my haze I did not take the time to try to remember his name and instead referred to the attendance sheet in my hand: “And you aaaarrrreee…” I said before I found his name. I looked up to catch a quizzical and slightly concerned look from his parent. (The camper seemed a little surprised but he rolled with it.) And it’s true, my absentmindedness, my inattention to the camper’s emotional well-being — my failure to recognize him — was unusual in the context of Bank Street Camp, not up to code. I would like to think that my Bank Street education and experience imbued in me not only the capability to create and maintain physical and emotional safety for others but also to recognize, however minute an instance, when I or someone else fails to do so, and to correct behavior accordingly.
Coming back to Bank Street is always re-orienting: it reminds how to be a conscientious person and how to care for those around me. Campers at Bank Street Summer Camp thus have the double benefit of being on the receiving end of care and positivity as well as learning (by example and explicit lessons) how to replicate this behavior. And that is a wonderful thing.