It’s day one of camp at the Ogden Nature Center in Ogden, Utah. I secure my mask to hinge behind my ears and lubricate my hands in homemade hand sanitizer that smells of rosemary. On my shirt I pin a button with a picture of my unobscured face. In my pack I carry the usual: bug and plant identification guides, medical forms for my campers, sunscreen and bug spray, and an abundance of disinfecting wipes, towels, hand sanitizer, and backup rubbing alcohol. The goal is to get kids outside, teach them about nature and conservation, and simultaneously halt the spread of a worldwide pandemic.
As a rising junior English major at Whitman College, I think a lot about what makes communication effective, or how a change in normal communication style (think strange use of commas or an unusual part of speech) can make a sentiment more meaningful to a reader. The COVID-19 pandemic shifts everything “normal” about communication. We talk about our connections with each other through masks, learn environmental science through computer screens, and physical contact is an imagined squeeze from six feet away. The pandemic is an unrecognizable piece of punctuation and I am baffled on how to interpret its meaning.
But these children who I am working with at my internship are unhindered by the new and perplexing way of reading the world. As they prance through the handwashing station, I place them in their spot in our introduction circle, measuring six feet with my teacher stick. They smooth out their yellow “sit spot” on the dirt and plop down, sputtering about the deer they saw on the way into camp and the hike that they went on with their family the other day and they even saw a waterfall and a butterfly and they ask “What are we going to learn about today at camp?” and “Can I give you an air hug?” and “How do bees poop?” and, perhaps best of all, they state “I am going to be a scientist.”
Going into this internship, I was braced to comfort children who were fearful of masks; instead, I have found that these little scientists are actually comforting my fears for the future. Rather than letting a six-foot circle close them off, they examine each other’s lunches from afar. They remind each other to let the hand sanitizer dry before touching anything. They persevere in their curiosity. They want to learn and engage, no matter what the format is.
The kids are quick to recognize me, the taller one with the big stick and a selfie button, as their teacher when we discuss the rule “respect your teachers” during our introduction to camp. But I am always delighted by the expression on their faces when I acknowledge all of them as teachers too. I tell them how much I am going to learn from them during camp, and how much they are going to learn from one another. Besides the plethora of insect facts that these little entomologists absorb on a daily basis, we learn how to navigate the world together.
After completing my sophomore year of college from home, I felt that I would never be able to adapt to the new language that seemed to emerge out of nowhere. I was paralyzed by confusion. With my fellow teachers, bouncing through the grasses, ready to capture grasshoppers, I am moving again. They are teaching me how to translate the illegible scrawl that the pandemic writes.
We walk around the Ogden Nature Center, six-year-olds smiling through their masks at praying mantises. We spread our arms out like eagle wings as we walk, careful not to disturb anyone else’s flight pattern, cawing out to each other as we move.
Experiences like Anna Johnston’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Mitzy Rodriguez