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Director’s Annual Commentary

Autumn 2008: Clean Mirth


"E'EN AS HE TROD THAT DAY TO GOD
SO WALKED HE FROM HIS BIRTH
IN SIMPLENESS AND GENTLENESS
AND HONOR AND CLEAN MIRTH."

Most Kingswood hikers know whence these words spring. On the other side of Lake Tarleton, deep in the woods of Aloha Mountain, on a remote path known these days nearly exclusively by Kingswood boys, there rests the Manning Tablet on a solid stone foundation. The honorarium was dedicated in 1924 by the Lake Tarleton Club in memory of a Mr. Robert L. Manning.

I know nothing of this person's biography. I can only surmise that Robert L. Manning would have been a good Kingswood man. Every summer, I exhort the boys to "read the plaque," tossing in "and live by its words" for good measure. Allow me to explore these possibilities in this year's Director's Annual Commentary.

SIMPLENESS

Unpretentious pleasures trump materialism: The beauty of one's surroundings. The company of friends. A chance to grow, physically and emotionally. The spirit of competition, verses oneself as well as versus others. These examples are not only simple, but they are free! At Kingswood, we strive to make everything as uncomplicated as possible. "The fun is in the doing," is our mantra. This past summer, when a boy was kudoed (a Kingswood verb!) for making it all the way around the lake on skis in his first lifetime effort, I made it a point to cross the room to shake his hand. "No trophy, no ribbon, not even a patch for you," I teased him but with full confidence the kid comprehended fully where this Kingswood value lay.

Yes, there is something about unpretentiousness as a human characteristic that really appeals. When a bashful "Aw shucks" is a youngster's heartfelt response to a compliment rather than a "What do I get?" then I say we are making progress with that child. Not that we would ever counsel a boy not to try hard to succeed and care deeply about his accomplishments. But, why not countenance a self-effacing smile on the surface with a deeper comprehension that the rewards of life will come with the accumulation of meaningful experiences and the self-confidence that accrues from them?

Is all this that simple? Sure, it can be if a fellow elects to live and let live. There is no formal religious context at Kingswood; we are fully non-denominational. Yet, Kingswood retains its highest esteem for those universal values " that set of principles which just about everyone can agree upon without debate. 'simple," then, is anything which does not require analysis. When a Buddhist monk acknowledges "First, do no harm," and a Kingswood counselor informs his charges to be "good guys," the two mean about the same thing. A life of simpleness assumes this most uncomplicated posture.

GENTLENESS

I am not gentle in thought or word. I wear my heart on my sleeve and, most of the time, am an easy read. Like many boys, I am competitive and play the game to win. Not bad characteristics, I guess, so long as one remains consistent, knows himself and tempers his behavior with a softer side. I am trying!

I would argue that the gentleness of Robert L. Manning was that kind and tender sort. At Kingswood, we urge boys to do much more than merely control their emotions. One Sunday per session, at camp meeting, we debate the phrase "To make a friend, you have to be a friend." No sermon is required as boys can be relied upon to recall notions forwarded in summers prior. That carry-over value of lessons learned is a wonderful component of the camp experience. I digress. Boys know their lines on this friendship angle and, from what we can tell, many practice what they preach. Gentleness, while not necessarily defined as such, is a prime ingredient in the friendship recipe. "Be sort of quiet at first and do more listening than talking" is one thought likely to be summoned at this gathering. "Laugh at the other guy's jokes, even if they are not that funny" is another suggestion. Boys seem to get the idea that attempting to take the joint by storm is rarely a winning ploy. If not immediately, kids catch on soon. The most popular campers lead by setting a good example as well as letting their kind deeds to their talking for them.

One of Kingswood's good traditions has it that counselors will 'self-kudo," or praise their own accomplishments, in the dining room in order to draw teasing jeers from the rest of us. Everyone down to the youngest camper gets the message. Thus, even guys who love the spotlight find ways at camp to soften their temperaments. Everyone acknowledges that self awareness and empathy are absolute musts for the outgoing personality. The guy who is on his feet day after day delivering punch lines galore had better know himself in his present social environment and be completely aware of his audience. I make this a command, for at Kingswood sensitivity is mandatory. "Don't you ever dare draw attention to another person in a way that hurts his feelings," I rant at people, usually adding something akin to "or I'll crack your head if you do" for exaggerated effect.

So, to Kingswood campers we say go ahead and be that rough, tough customer on the ball field or a biting wit in conversation. But, the underlying message is an insistence that boys infuse a soft heartedness and a kind soul to their human endeavors. Spiritually, over time, they become more gentle persons despite lingering surface indicators otherwise. And, what a deal it is for a kid to learn he can gain the understanding and acceptance of his peers without first needing to throw his weight around to get their attention.

HONOR

With honor comes high respect and esteem. An honorable person brings credit to himself, usually by adhering to conventional standards of conduct. At Kingswood, we talk more about honor, again without necessarily defining it, than any other virtue. We tell boys to do the right thing regardless of the consequences. Many of Kingswood's sports games are self-refereed. If a boy is tagged, he removes himself from that round of the game. "I did not catch the pass in bounds," or "I trapped the ball," or "Yes, I fouled him under the basket" are all honorable notions which become institutionalized over time. TIME is the operative word where honor is concerned as the human survival instinct calls for self-preservation. Lying and cheating to retain an edge, therefore, are part of our human hard-wiring while the discipline of personal accountability " that taking of responsibility for one's actions " is a learned trait. And, anything that needs to be taught must be repeated over and over again.

So, at Kingswood, we talk about "traditions of expectation" and one of those values surely is honorable behavior. Doing the right thing goes far beyond simple self-regulated games, however. Kids everywhere crave extracurricular fun (ie., horsing around) but we ask them to first think through each action from the other guy's point of view. Thus, boys soon see that light-hearted wrestling is fine as there are seldom any repercussions but that towel-snapping is most malicious. Another example is nighttime devilishness, when kids make mischief under cover of darkness. An occasional post-lights out antic is okay so long as the stealth is not a chronic happenstance and is done with integrity. No one gets hurt, physically or emotionally; whatever is done is easily undone; and a good night's sleep for all involved is the end product.

We feel that the evolution of a person's character into the honorable zone begins with the small actions such as the examples cited above that are part and parcel to the camp experience. We expect to see good attitudes on the sports field, to hear about hikes concluded with nary a complaint, and listen while boys praise the accomplishments of others rather than accepting the same for their own. Out of a zillion such episodes comes a life of honor. Surely, Robert L. Manning would approve.

CLEAN MIRTH

How sweet that must be! To be certain, I consulted a dictionary where "mirth" was defined as "amusement, especially as in expressed with laughter." But, I looked up the word "clean" as well and when I found "clean" to mean "morally uncontaminated, pure, innocent, and not sexually offensive or obscene," the image of Robert L Manning as the ideal Kingswood camper came clearly into focus. Every summer I tell counselors to have a great time at camp and include the campers in that fun. The rest is gravy, I assure them.

Clearly, part and parcel to the "have fun" suggestion is that it should be of the clean mirth sort. Easier said than done, as it is a fine line between teasing and taunting, between jive and trash talk, and between grappling and hazing. Events conspire to bring boys to the brink of these distinctions every day of their lives, one can suppose. I can look back to my own camper years and it was there " more than at home or in school " where I was taught, or found out for myself, the important differences between clean and not-so-clean mirth.

Camp is a great place to not only remind kids (mostly in private) when they get it wrong but also acknowledge (in public when appropriate) when a boy or group of boys have those spot-on joyous happenstances. To be forthright, I'll tell you we have plenty of examples from both sides of the line at Kingswood each summer. Boys have to be reminded that pestering one another is not okay, that malicious trash talk on the sports field is not okay and that any provoking physical contact is not okay. I and others do get some satisfaction when we see the light bulb of understanding go on inside a boy's head when called on his behavior. A camp that does not have these challenges simply is not well tending its charges.

Yet, I reserve my high points of contentment for those deliriously happy occasions where the fun has been in the doing and that's all there is to it. I stumbled into the music room one day last summer to find 7-8 boys engaged in a game of circle drums. One guy started a beat with any percussion gadget and others in turn improvised off the original beat. The sound was awesome and we " I having been invited to tap a pair of drum sticks " kept it going for several minutes. Pure bliss. On another occasion, near dusk, I heard shouts of unrestrained glee echoing across the calm waters of Lake Tarleton. Some lifeguards had disattached the fishing raft, a 20 foot square dock, from its anchorage and had paddled it, Huck Finn style, across the lake. Now, they were almost home and the rafters surely wanted everyone along the shore to greet their return. " Right paddle," "left reverse," were orders above the din as the monstrosity slowly but gracefully glided back to the exact spot of departure. Now that has got to have been a moment which Robert L. Manning would have loved. Would that we all could cling to such simple virtues as Mannings" every day of our lives.