The highlight of each school year for the fifth-graders I teach is a week-long science camp. They get to dissect squid, observe elephant seals, hike in the woods, learn about varied environments, and live in cabins.
It starts with a nearly 300-mile bus trip to the camp in San Luis Obispo, Calif., a verdant, hilly place that's a far cry from the violence and despair that are the norm in the small agricultural town my predominantly Latino kids grow up in.
Most kids go. I have to convince a few parents their kiddos will be safe. Then there are the one or two that I'd like to stay home, like Rufus.
Kids that I don't want to go are usually the ones who need to come the most. Over the years they've tended to be the most desperate, the neediest, the ones who, sorry to say, are statistically most inclined to end up where their parents are – behind bars. Fifty percent of my kids visit family members in prison or jail. That is a staggering number.
Rufus missed an unbelievable 40 days of school this year and was tardy another 18. His dad is incarcerated and his mom, who sometimes seems barely functional, drives Rufus and his older brother to school when she can or feels like it.
In class, Rufus is inattentive, angry, and unresponsive. He lies, steals, and talks back.
He's not the only one. But he easily stands head and shoulders above the other challenged kids.
I didn't want him to come because over the years I've seen it all at camp. Kids have dialed 911, stolen food, smashed lights, and worse. And the perpetrators are always the troubled boys, like Rufus.
But ... camp is also a chance to see another side of the kids. And it's an opportunity for them to see nature and get a glimpse of how it works. It's a time when there will be no homework. And a time for a child to be successful in many nonacademic ways.
It's also a nonschool environment in which a kid like Rufus can maybe have a positive interaction with his teacher.
So Rufus was allowed to go, on the condition that he stay in my cabin, where I could watch him like a hawk. Sometimes he annoyed me. And he messed up now and then. But mostly we laughed and we played.
At meals, he sat on my left. And then we'd talk. "Rufus." I asked, "what's the best thing about camp?"
When I asked this question of other kids, they might mention a meal, an animal they'd seen, a nature hike, or a mistake a teacher had made.
Not Rufus. "The shower," he said.
"Shower?" I asked.
"Yup." He beamed, "All the hot water you want, as long as you want."
I shook my head in wonderment. I've been teaching for more than 20 years, and there are still times I don't understand these kids, I thought.
Soon after that, all the kids except José left the table.
"José," I said, "I can't believe Rufus likes showers better than all the things we're doing in camp."
Big, wide eyes looked up at me. "He don't have no shower in his mom's car," José informed me. "They live in the car."
So 2 and 2 added up to 4 in the end. It finally all made sense: Rufus's absences, the tardies, and now his love for hot showers. I wish I could say Rufus and I got along a lot better after that or that his grades improved or that he came to school more often. Although I tried, none of it would be true.
But one thing was reconfirmed: There is a lot to be learned at science camp every year – and not just by the kids.