One by one, pictures scrolled across a dangling white screen in the back of the communal eating hall. Photos of children at play, running in fields, climbing towers and building canoes. A ritual of storytelling about the events of the unfolding week. Each photo greeted by modest cheers, chuckles or rib poking gestures from those in attendance.
And then, a thunderous applause erupted that brought tears to my eyes.
This was the setting of our final night at summer camp this year. The final night of every summer camp, in which a slideshow highlights the accomplishments of a week where children living with cancer come to the woods to find solidarity, have fun and be kids. I have the privilege of being their “camp doc” for the week while experiencing first-hand the instantaneous comradery of children living with shared life experiences.
The camp welcomes all, from children actively going through radiation and chemotherapy treatments to individuals years into remission from their cancer. And they can bring a friend or sibling too. Amongst those in attendance are several individuals with their own physical limitations secondary to the devastating side effects these treatments can inflict. Limitations in mobility, speech or processing. Wheelchairs, canes, hearing aids, or ankle braces. Often viewed as lifelong disabilities that “limit” individuals from their ability to accomplish or achieve.
The applause continues.
In our current cultural climate it has never been more imperative to challenge this pervasive social narrative, as we witness funding, access and social norms being slashed in terms of addressing all of our own physical differences. Public mocking and separatism have become an insulting and divisive new norm. A broadening failure to highlight our own abilities. Instead we critically dissect and magnify other people’s failures and/or limitations.
The applause begins to subside in a natural crescendo after several consecutive photos of the same camper roll off of the screen. The still portraits projected a young child with her own unique set of abilities, accompanied by a walker and a steadying hand. In these moments, she was being ceremoniously applauded, frame by frame. A picture of her on horseback, at the rope swing and painting a canvas. The beauty of the applause was that it was never seeking attention for its presence. It was merely an unscripted instinct. Pure joy, spontaneous love and respectful recognition only cheering for the human being, not because of any physical limitations but despite it. Recognizing her accomplishments and achievements not as distinct or different, but to be celebrated all the same.
Then the next set of photos came rolled along of other campers, and the cheers continued. As if the moment was supposed to happen that way. No camper thought twice about it. No one looked around for an endorsement or tacit approval. No breaks, pauses or social clarifications.
In my own misty eyed reflection, I was overcome by the moment. A moment that revealed a culture in the woods. A culture that highlights, celebrates, applauds and cheers human accomplishments. Not with a measuring stick, or a weighted scale. Not merit based by physical strength or intellectual quotients. Measured in terms of solidarity to a family of individuals living with shared life experiences, accepting of our own, and celebrating the unique abilities we all bring to the table.
I hope that we can all clap for that. Thunderously.