By Dana Williams
The month of May in my house means one thing for sure – the beginning of the official countdown to summer break. The last day of school already is highlighted and circled on the wall calendar in my son’s bedroom, and I soon can expect daily announcements about how many days to go until “freedom.”
This annual “freedom” countdown also serves as my reminder to finalize plans for summer camp or other programs and activities. This year, I’m a little behind in my planning. That’s partially because I am a bit of a procrastinator, and partially because a summer camp incident last year has caused me to be somewhat unsure about which program to sign my son up for this year.
Last year, my son was extremely excited about attending a summer day camp in a neighboring community. He got to take a 30-minute bus trip to and from camp every day, and each day was so packed with activities that he often came home with only enough energy left to eat dinner and dive into bed. I looked forward to listening to him chatter about all of the fun things he got to do each day – horseback riding, canoeing, archery, fishing, hiking.
That excitement waned, however, when another camper began making hurtful remarks about my son’s skin color and repeatedly called him a racial slur. My son’s initial chatter about his daily camp activities came to a sudden end and was replaced by anger, sadness and frustration.
Although my son said he reported the harassment to his camp counselor, the remarks continued. My son said his counselor didn’t seem to take his complaints seriously, telling him not to let words upset him.
It wasn’t until I had a serious talk with the camp director that the harassment ended. But by that time, the damage was done – my son told me he no longer wanted to attend the camp, and I withdrew him and registered him for a different summer program.
A window outside their everyday world
The schools in our mid-sized southern community are very much segregated along racial and socieoeconomic lines, as is the case in many schools across the nation. In many ways, summer camps provide one of very few opportunities for children of different races and backgrounds to come in contact with each other.
As such, summer camps are bound to provide young people with a valuable window outside their everyday world. But unfortunately, such an opportunity also can expose children to the many stereotypes that often are born out of segregated schools and communities.
As I explained to my son last year, the young man who harassed him with racial slurs probably didn’t attend school with or know very many black children. I believed the words the young man used against my son came from a place of ignorance rather than malice.
Parents should try to seize summer programs as learning opportunities for children, and as avenues to continue the lessons of tolerance and respect that our children may have been learning during the school year. Tolerance and character education are core lessons in many classrooms, and parents can and should carry these lessons over into the summer.
Here are some tips to help parents extend lessons of tolerance and acceptance beyond the school year:
• Look for diversity in summer programs. When choosing summer camps or other summer activities, parents can make an effort to seek out those programs that bring together youth from various areas of the community. Exposing children to diversity in all its forms can and does help dispel stereotypes and fosters a better appreciation of differences.
• Put tolerance on the summer reading list. As many schools stress the importance of reading during the summer break, parents can make sure that books with tolerance-related themes are included on their household reading lists. Parents can read the same books as their children, and discuss the important lessons and themes together.
• Find opportunities for children to be of service to others. For older children, summer often presents opportunities to participate in service learning or community service activities. These programs help build character and instill lessons of tolerance that last long after the summer break has ended.
Recently, my son told me he would like to give the day camp he attended last year another try. “Maybe that kid from last year won’t be there, or maybe if he is, he won’t do the same thing again,” he told me. “I shouldn’t let somebody else’s problem keep me from having fun.”
I’m happy that my son is willing to give the camp another shot, and even happier that at the young age of 10, he has learned not to allow someone else’s intolerance to deny him of an opportunity. Unlike his end-of-the-school-year countdown, this lesson is one that opens the doors to true “freedom.”
This essay originally appeared on Tolerance.org, the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama.