As a youngster growing up in a nice suburb, I looked forward to summer- it meant freedom from school- freedom to be outside, or to read. I loved reading. One of my favorite series is the Astrowitches series that no one, I repeat no one has heard of. Whats more, I loved the ability to laze around the house or the pool or the outside with friends. It was the best to run around our two acres in Orchard Park/Hamburg or the 10 acres that we lived on in Gloversville. When I was even younger, I remember going to my friends apartment just down the block- where we could ride bikes around the cul-de-sacks for the development. It was heaven! Later in life, I went to summer camp as a scout. First in 1988 to Scouthaven, the GNFC summer camp in the Buffalo NY area. My first year at camp was cool- on the trail to first class, I learned how to cut wood properly, tie knots, and master the Blue swimmer for my requirements. Back in my day, we earned skill awards, and you needed Citizenship and one other skill award to complete Tenderfoot.At camp I earned swimming and one other skill award. I also was proud that I earned Fishing Merit badge. That summer was so much fun, singing songs, going to activities, and hanging out with the guys in Troop 4, from Armor, NY (a hamlet at the cross roads of Orchard Park and Hamburg). In 1989, I again went to camp, this time to Schoellkopf Scout Reservation, out near Alden, NY. Camp Scouthaven had been closed due to some issue. SSR as Schoellkopf was known for was a different type of camp. When it was open, many troops went there to cook in site. Scouthaven had the dining hall for meals. Now, a circus tent was set up to accommodate troops who didn’t want to cook their own meals. Our Troop was situated in Creekside site, along the mighty Cayuga Creek. There we stayed, and there I earned another set of Merit Badges. This time the Ecology section was my home. That summer, I tackled Environmental Science, Swimming, Basketry, and Mammal Study merit badge. These four badges represented my start towards Eagle Scout. Earlier that spring, I had earned First Aid Merit badge, and in the process completed all of the Skill Award Requirements for 1st class. I had earned 8. At home, my second class rank requirements were met by music merit badge and American Heritage Merit badge. My hobbies and interests were beginning to shine- I liked history and environmental sciences. In the summer of 1990, back at camp, I undertook Fish and Wildlife, Art, Cooking(before it was required) Sports and painting. Later that summer, mom and dad sent me back for Eagle Camp, and I earned Safety, Citizenship in the Nation, Citizenship in the world, emergency preparedness, personal management and Communications. In 1991, I transferred troops, and became a member of Troop 400 from Hamburg. We went to Five Rivers Council Camp Gorton, in the southern Finger Lakes. They had some really cool merit badges, which included leather working, architecture, Atomic Energy and Canoeing. In 1992, as a CIT at Camp Schoellkopf, I had a banner year for badges: Weather, Wood Carving, Astronomy, Nature, Archery, Soil and water conservation, reptile study, hiking, geology, Indian Lore, Bird Study, Pioneering, and orienteering, collections, salesmanship and rowing. These badges represented some classes across SSR and independent studies I did on my own while there. My collections badge came from patch collecting! In 1993, I attended the National Jamboree, and earned Public health, medicine, Agribusiness, firemanship, and energy. Back home that summer, I completed an independent study for Reading, Botany, Plant Science, Astronomy, Personal Fitness, athletics, and Animal Science. In 1994, my Merit Badge years were wrapping up, and I completed American Labor, Public speaking and Forestry. I was exposed to a number of different merit badges, and learned a bit about a lot. I wish Archaeology was an option when I was younger. I also regret not earning Pets Merit Badge or Genealogy. But I am blessed to have earned 61 badges. While by no means was my troop a merit badge factory, or my camp a merit badge factory, I was just blessed that from 1988-1995 (when I turned 18 and was no longer eligible to earn badges) I averaged 8 merit badges a year.
Looking at what students in rural or urban poverty face, they by no means are exposed to the camps and the hobbies, interests, or fascinating experiences of Merit Badges. In urban Rochester, where I worked for a year and 1/2 (two summer sessions), students who attended summer school were subjected to crunch summer school sessions of the same content as to what they experienced during the year. Its the louder and slower mentality for people who deal with non native speakers. The classes were held in a hot (80+ degree building) with poor tasting water, little air movement, and stifling humidity. Everyone in the classrooms was in survival mode due to the heat. Movies were shown or video clips so the lights were kept off. Teachers and students were in unbearable conditions because New York State won’t pay for air conditioning in schools. (its a luxury after all- even if we are seeing record breaking summers due to climate change). The lunches were sub par- 2 slices of bread, a slice of processed cheese, and a slice of processed meat. One kid remarked “we got better food in juvie.” Yeah, its true. What we feed our poor kids in many poor schools is crappy carbo and sugar rich foods. Breakfast for the summer usually entailed a juice, a cereal and chocolate or strawberry milk. Yep- sugar comas in 20 minutes. Over and over, in Long Island Schools where I oversaw state efforts and federal programs, and in cities, the activities were all school related. One of the biggest changes we as an educational profession need to make is the idea that a camp is a requirement, not a luxury for children. In the City of Albany, when I worked with the State Ed Department, I would park a couple of blocks from my office in the Arbor Hills area. I would frequently see children out in the streets playing, and roving vans with food driving around to deliver meals. While unstructured play is good, and is needed, there is also the reality of a summer slump. Let me regal you with the difference between my 1993 summer and a different summer:
Late June-July- Casey files from Buffalo NY to Chicago, where he then boards a plane to Denver CO. He arrives and is met by a Scouting family who drives him around the city, feeds him and lets him stay at their house overnight so that early the next day he can ride a bus to Cimmeron NM and go to Philmont, NM. At Philmont, he is greeted by a staff member and explores base camp for a day. 48 Hours after leaving Buffalo, Casey takes National Junior Leader Instructor Camp, where he learns about Servant Leadership and leadership theory and implementation as a member of Abreau Troop NJLIC summer 1993. While there he learns about the William T. Hornaday award and begins to plan how to earn a prestigious award. He then leaves Philmont, where he is met by the family in Denver. He gets on a flight from Denver to Chicago, and then flies to buffalo, where he is met by his family. He then goes to his job at SSR, where he works as a Merit Badge instructor for Ecology, teaching Mammal Study for the summer. At the end of July, Casey leaves SSR for the National Jamboree at Fort AP Hill, VA, where he learns more environmental and conservation techniques. While on the way, the contingent stops at Gettysburg, stays at Gettysburg college, and tours the battle field. It sparks an interest in history, and Casey, as a rising junior, begins to search for colleges, including Gettysburg. He meets with scouts from across the US, and enjoys snorkel, Merit Badges midway, learns about the military, meets the Order of the Arrow national officers, and networks at the National Eagle Scout Association tent. After arriving home, Casey returns to camp, and then at the end of Summer, serves as the Junior Leader Training Quartermaster. Here he meets community leaders who range from his Technology Teacher at Hamburg Middle School to financial and governmental officials, including the deputy County Executive for Erie County.
What happens in a poor environment? At the end of june when school lets out, a child of the same age in a city may be faced with summer school. Or the teen may be responsible for caring for a brother or sister, or multiple family members. Or the child may have fathered a baby. In some places, the child may be in a gang, or on drugs, or being hassled for loitering. Not all poverty areas may have these problems. We must however, as a society, find a way to level the playing field between my experience, and the experience of a poor inner city or rural student.