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Connections | Magazine

‘I spend summers at a camp teaching “weird” teens that they’re cool'

Some colleagues and I refuse to let those kids down this year because of COVID-19.

A goth tie-dye project at this year’s virtual Odyssey Teen Camp.
A goth tie-dye project at this year’s virtual Odyssey Teen Camp.From Derek Thomas
The writer at 14, his first year at the camp.
The writer at 14, his first year at the camp.From Georgios Tsangaris

I’m standing on a chair in the middle of the dining hall as campers and counselors alike shriek around me, crouching and pointing upward. Above us, an equally frightened bat frantically zig-zags around the ceiling beams. The room is in chaos. This isn’t how I envisioned my first day of camp.

A gangly 14-year-old boy who wore dresses to punk shows and rarely made friends, I’d arrived just a few hours earlier at Odyssey Teen Camp in the Berkshires from my home in the Connecticut suburbs. Generally, I preferred to spend my time deep in a science fiction novel, or breeding exotic cockroach species. In short, I was a deeply uncool weirdo.

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But at this orientation, I knew exactly what to do. Climbing on a chair, I yelled, “Don’t worry, it’s just a Myotis lucifugus! A little brown bat. It’s very rare that they carry rabies! Trust me, I’m a member of Bat Conservation International.”

It worked. Everyone calmed down, and the bat quietly found an open window and left.

Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was cool. The people around me actually liked that I was an effeminate punk who knew a lot about animals. This was the kind of accepting and loving community I’d never had, and it changed my life.

After a few summers as a camper, I graduated to being a counselor, and now at 32 I’m helping run the show. I’m still the same strange human I’ve always been, but now I know that it makes me really cool. I spend my summers teaching “weird” teens that they’re cool, too.

COVID-19 almost ended all of that. Early on we suspected there would be no safe way to proceed with gathering as usual and OTC would have to be on hold. No hiking the trails looking for red efts and damselflies. No late-night campfires. No hugs.

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Unwilling to let down the teens who rely on the community we provide, a few of us combined our minimal technical skills and started an online camp — something was better than nothing. Two months in, though we can’t make any s’mores, we’re running a convincing version of “real camp.” About 50 kids sign up weekly for virtual versions of our typically quirky classes, like Goth Tie-Dyeing, Spray Can Art, or Make Your Own ‘Zine.

We’ve managed to build a more affordable, accessible, and diverse version of our physical summer camp. Instructors — like the drag performer in Alaska who taught a makeup class — can participate on Zoom from all over the world without having to travel to Massachusetts, and shyer kids can turn off their cameras until they feel comfortable.

Recently, six campers came together for a Pet Portraits class with my friend Yolpie, an artist and clown. “OK everyone, this is going to be kind of like figure drawing, but with animals,” Yolpie said, “so try and get near your pet.”

One camper without a pet asked, “Can I just find a picture of an alien online and draw myself holding it on a leash?” Yes, of course. These are the kinds of questions we love.

I was shown a menagerie of beautiful and bizarre pet portraits, one by one.

“This is my dog, but drawn as if he was wearing suspenders and a top hat.”

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“I just tried to draw my snake as realistically as possible. It was easy because he didn’t move at all.”

Watching these teenagers get creative, act silly, and make friends, all from home, is a privilege. I’ve learned a lot about how adaptable humans can be in their quest for meaningful communities. A nonjudgmental space does a lot of good for anyone, especially young people. But many of our campers aren’t used to being around people that accept them for who they are — neurodivergent, LGBTQ+, or just kids that are like I was at 14, who primarily want to talk about bugs.

At its best, summer camp is a temporary experiment in actualizing a better world. When it’s safe again, we’ll gather in the Berkshires, but for now, I’ll keep showing that same acceptance online to teenagers from across the United States. And in this pivotal, historic moment, I’ll ask them: What kind of world are we going to build together?

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Georgios Tsangaris is a poet, activist, and performer in New Orleans. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.