Education

Ernest (Hemingway) goes to camp

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Youthwrite offers young authors, poets and songwriters a chance to work amongst
their peers

There is a place hidden among trees where Albertan prairies transform into
mountain ranges, a place where magic is as real as dew on morning raspberry
bushes, breathed from the minds and hands of children who might not otherwise
have a place to call their own. This modest space of dense trees and sapphire
skies, 11 kilometres from the immodestly named Bragg Creek, is Kamp Kiwanis.
And for two weeks each year it thrums as the imagination workshop called
Youthwrite under the creative leadership of poet, fantasy novelist, singer,
dancer, school teacher and organizer Gail Sidonie Sobat.

Sobat, who’s been heading Youthwrite for nine years, is dedicated to
recruiting a demographically diverse supervisory and instructional team.
Under Sobat’s guidance, a team of youth supervisors
(“supers”) and professional writers (from Governor General
Award-winning playwright Vern Thiessen to songwriter Maria Dunn to acclaimed
American young adult novelist Terry Trueman) leads junior high and
high-school kids from across Alberta through a multidisciplinary writing
adventure. Past instructors have also included the late Martin Godfrey and
Monica Hughes, as well as storyteller Merle Harris, children’s author
Tolo Mollel and “Alberta Beatnik” Mark Kozub. According to Sobat,
none has shone quite as much as Hellboy-ish Spyder Yardley-Jones, whose art
decorates the camp and whose gentleness and joy with students is radiant,
particularly at evening riverside gatherings.

“Kids should come, and they should play, but it should be meaningful
play,” says Sobat, author of Ingamald and Aortic Caprice. Sobat seeks
out marginalized and underprivileged kids; formerly a teacher at Amiscwaciy
Academy, Edmonton’s First Nations high school, she has always sought
out the kids “who come from very dark places,” she says. She
intends that Youthwrite should help young people grow in various
dimensions—suggesting that youth write also means youth wright. Any
writer, she explains, “needs tenacious spirit, a thick skin, and all of
those good things [which] we try to incorporate throughout the camp…. All
of the arts are springboards for each other…. We wanted to build an Edenic
camp [where] we could be decent to each other, even good to each other, and
take a little bit of that home with us when we leave.”

Sobat’s missionary zeal for the underpuppy is no cause du jour. Her
father’s family emigrated from Serbia, and her parents were raised
during the Depression. (“They had an awareness beyond
[them]selves,” she says. “They had come from nothing…. My
mother told me about my grandmother feeding the hobos.”) Because her
father worked for the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development,
Sobat lived on the Blackfoot Siksika Reserve near Gleichen between ages three
and seven. She says she was “a lonely kid, lonely and alone. So
that’s the kind of kid I understand best.” Although you might
glean that empathy from Sobat’s tenderness with young people,
she’s no sad sack. At Youthwrite (or elsewhere), you’re much more
likely to find her cheerfully improvising eleventh-hour solutions, leading a
costume ball or dancing past midnight.

Inspired by Sobat’s enthusiasm and zeal, I signed up to teach a science
fiction and fantasy workshop during the junior high week of this July’s
Youthwrite. Although Youthwrite attracts mostly girls, the number of boys who
attends is increasing yearly—but regardless of gender, the kids at this
camp are remarkable. As a public school teacher, I’m used to taking the
time to stoke interest in literature and writing. With these
“Youthwriters,” that interest is already in full flame.

“At school, no one was into writing, and then here you come, and
there’s a whole group of people who basically devote a lot of their
life to writing,” says Janie-Erin, a 14-ish dynamo from Calgary.
“So it’s really wonderful coming here and knowing you’re
not alone.” Fareez, also 14-ish, agrees. “When other students at
the camp or instructors or supers critique your writing and they tell you
what’s good about it and what you can improve, you feel really
confident, so you feel like writing more. I often experience writer’s
block, so I wanted to get some ways and tips to avoid it; I’m in the
midst of writing a novel, so I just needed a little help with some of my
characters. I came here last year and it helped a lot.”

Maxine, a wry Peppermint Patty, admits that she’d originally thought
Youthwrite “would be a bunch of kids whose parents had forced them to
come, and then I realized it was actually people who wanted to be here and
wanted to write.” The 2004 camp marks her third year at Youthwrite.
“I learned a lot of stuff about writing techniques and how to work
through stuff, and I started some really good stories, so I might as well
come back…. Before I didn’t like my writing, but now I
do.”

Megan, whose inferno of curly red hair could shame any green-gabled Anne,
says that prior to her first Youthwrite last year, she hadn’t been very
happy. “I was, like, an outcast, and I had to try to fit in. When I
came here, I realized I could just be me and people won’t go,
‘Ah, she’s weird.’ And it’s a great place to improve
your writing.” She takes her writing seriously. “I’ve
already written a book. It’s 113 pages, and I have a second one
that’s 159. The first one is about these cat-creature things with
wings, and it was published in my school. The second one is about
wolves—all wolves have power, but this one wolf, she’s learned to
use it. And this other wolf, she wants to totally wipe out the world and turn
it into her own—it’s called Frost.”
Youthwrite doesn’t address only the obviously literary—this year,
an instructor from Quebec taught dance, local radical librarian Jenny Ryan
instructed kids in agit-prop guerrilla poetry, while E-Town folk star Maria
Dunn taught a course in songwriting whose final performance featured their
song on superheroes and daily heroism.

Candace, an American, appreciated Dunn’s tutelage. “Being with
people who understand your interests helps you to not be afraid to show what
you can do. With Maria Dunn, I figured out that I have at least some ability
to come up with songs,” she giggles. “And I learned it’s
okay to be myself and be really creepy, because I’m kinda weird. But
[that] kinda comes from the supers, because they’re always weird and
hyper and, like, cool.” Megan agrees. “Back where I live,
everyone—they don’t really go near me most of the time, and I
come here, and it’s just, like, ‘Yay! I’m amongst my
own!’ There’s a lot of boring people where I live.”

Gail Sobat wouldn’t be surprised by such sentiments. “Kids who
feel different, who feel excluded, or who maybe are excluded, who are lonely,
misunderstood, not as socially accepted in school… they come together in a
safe place where they can be understood,” she says. “These little
flowers open up into blossoms [through Youthwrite] year after year after
year…. I get a high off of seeing it.” V

Minister Faust is a high school English teacher. His novel The Coyote
Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad has just been published by Del Rey/Random
House.

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