By Rosalind Bentley
If he could have, Thomas Bearden would have pulled himself up past the steel rafters and out onto the corrugated roof. As it was, he was already 25 feet in the air, hanging by what amounted to two blood-red threads.
The only thing keeping the 14-year-old aloft besides sinewy arms, bare feet and willpower was a metal hook about the size of a frying pan that was bolted to the gym ceiling. Looped through that hook and cascading down into a puddle on the lean floormat below were those billowing threads, or “silks” as they are called in the circus trade.
At the top of the silks was Bearden, who began twining himself over and over in their folds. Left, right, under, around, he was a whirl of agility if not quite grace. Just when it seemed he was bound up safe and tight, his brown hair a breath away from the canopy of steel above — whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh — Bearden unfurled himself, spiraling downward with runaway speed. He halted just above the floor, his back arched and toes pointed. All an onlooker could do was gasp, which thrilled Bearden and the other kids at Circus Summer Camp to no end.
That’s the thing about aerial classes at the Decatur circus camp; you must learn to instill a little bit of fear in the audience as you perform a fearless routine from above.
Of course, technique is important, too. Which is why Bearden and 20 other kids are spending their summer mastering the thrills and spills of circus performance. There are about 60 other kids in the circus camp, most of them elementary schoolers learning how to juggle, tumble and puppeteer. The teenagers in the aerial class know how to do all of that. They can ride unicycles, walk all over the gym atop a giant blue ball, take a pie in the face without irritating their eyes and throw one without breaking the receiver’s nose.
But working the silks is like learning to do ballet in midair.
Upper body strength is only half of it. Elegance is key, which is a characteristic not often associated with middle school behavior. It’s not enough to contort into a fabric knot. It must be done with movements so seamless, that the audience vacillates between amazement and a state of suspense.
Some of these kids have held their breath ringside at Cirque du Soleil, watching the very best performers execute the same moves the teens are trying to learn at camp. A few like Bearden and 13-year-old Nicole Mintz have dreams of going on to a professional circus school in Montreal. Or maybe one in Paris.
“If you get into Montreal, there’s a 95 percent chance you’ll get into any circus you want,” Bearden said.
Which does he want to run away to?
“Cirque!” Bearden said.
He and the others might get there some day, if they can just perfect a little move called the “shoe fly.”
Mintz pulled herself up the silks. Down below teachers Hilary Riall and Jacosa Kato watched, occasionally yelling up a command. Mintz was fluid, twirling fabric around her, braiding herself in. Then, on cue at 20 feet up, Mintz released herself and became a cyclone of fabric and blond ponytail.
Even her classmates gasped.
Farming camp takes root along historic Auburn Avenue
Clad in sneakers, and toting two plastic buckets, 10-year-old Meiah Holt is ready to dive in.
Using her bare hands, Meiah digs into the ground, scooping up slick, deep orange, clay-like dirt.
Sitting in the middle of a four-acre plot near historic Auburn Avenue and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Park, Meiah is part of a crop of campers participating in an urban farming camp.
Filling her first container, Meiah shakes her head disapprovingly. Her second day in this two-week camp, she moves on in her search for fertile soil. She discovers fluffy, espresso-colored dirt. It clumps in her hand, but also breaks apart.
She smiles big.
“This dirt is alive. It can breathe,” she says with confidence. “I could use this to plant a tree.”
The farming camp, catering to children aged 6 to 14, begins each day with feeding the chickens. Daily lessons focus on making worm-rich soil, planting seeds and learning how to use garden tools.
The outdoor home of the camp was vacant land last year after apartments there were torn down. Wheat Street Baptist Church owns the land and leased the space to the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture to build an organic vegetable garden. With the help of volunteers and grants from the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation and other organizations, the land has been transformed into a garden with 55 raised beds, teeming with squash, arugula and tomatoes.
Camp director Amakiasu Shabaka Ford said she felt compelled to use this space for a summer camp to teach youngsters how to build, grow and sustain an organic farm. In many ways, it’s a summer camp with high hopes. The ultimate goal, according to Shabaka Ford, is to arm these campers, most of whom live inside the city limits, with the knowledge, skill and confidence to grow their very own fruits and vegetables.
For Meiah, a love for science was the motivation for enrolling in this camp. Her summer lineup will take her to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and include many trips to a swimming pool, but this is her only summer camp.
“I am very interested in science,” said Meiah. “But it’s so great to learn outdoors instead of a book.”
The campers spend 10 minutes every day picking a spot in the garden to sit and listen to their urban, but also ecologically lush environment. The sounds of cars whizzing up the nearby highway sound like bees, but there’s also bird chirping. They take deep breaths and though they are only steps away from concrete walls, they smell the garden, earthy and sweet.
“We have a circle here of people who are willing to be stewards of the earth,” Shabaka Ford tells the children, sitting on logs and bales of hay. “We can’t do it alone. We have to do it together.”
The camp has inspired Meiah, who lives with her family in an apartment, to plant her a container garden at home.
The kids all get plenty of time to explore the garden. And when it was time to gather under an oak tree, counselors get the campers attention — not by shouting or using a whistle — but by making the sound of a crow. Caw-caw. Caw-caw.
The children caw-caw back.
Letters add a truer meaning to staying in touch
Blue Ridge Camp
Mountain City, Georgia
Hello Mother, Hello Father.
Here I am at camp in ruggedly beautiful Rabun County. It’s Tuesday — aka Letter Writing Day — when all 237 campers have to write home by dinnertime.
ROFL! What’s up with that?
“Every parent wants to hear from their child,” said Lori Waldman, co-director of the camp founded 42 years ago by her husband Joey’s parents. “A lot of them who were campers here themselves tell us about the letters they wrote home, that their parents kept.”
Yeah, but that was way back in olden days, when letters arrived in those handwritten whatchamacallits ... Envelopes. Being a kid is totally different now.
“I’m usually on a computer, like, 24-7” at home, Blake Horowitz, 10, of Davie, Fla., admitted after lunch, when several cabin mates were flopped on their bunks scribbling. (And scribble they do. Blue Ridge does not allow campers to use cellphones or computers. Any letter or note sent by campers is handwritten).
“Parents now are so used to having this immediate communication with their kids,” said Lori Waldman, who teaches middle school during the year. “It’s very different, especially for first-time [camp] parents, to have to let go of control of their children.”
Blue Ridge wants us to develop independence, sure, but they’re not a bunch of big old meanies! Parents can sign up to send us Bunk Mail — essentially e-mails, as many and as elaborate as they want — through a New York-based company, Bunk1.
“I enjoy writing her every night because I feel like I’m touching her,” said Donna Neidorf of Roswell, whose daughter, Fiona, 12, is at Blue Ridge for a month. The camp posts photos each day in a password-protected area and Neidorf tailors her comments to any featuring Fiona.
“I [write] ‘I saw you wearing the green shirt and laughing or doing pottery’ and then I tell her about my day. It’s one-sided, but I’m having a conversation with her.’ ”
At least there’s a computer in the camp office, sigh. The Bunk Mails all arrive together in a single PDF file early each morning. The grown-ups print them out individually and fold them over so no one sees the contents. They’re sorted by cabin and distributed later in the day.
“The counselor comes in and we’re all screaming, ‘MAIL!’ ” Miles Berger, 10, said on this day when Joey Waldman had spent 90 minutes printing out 245 Bunk Mails.
Yeah, OK, so we kids miss our parents sometimes (don’t tell anyone, puhleeze!).
Luckily, the same company more recently introduced Bunk Replies — special stationery that a camper can write on. Afterward, the camp faxes it to Bunk1, which scans and emails it to the parents, who see the letter or note in the camper’s own handwriting.
“You can tell them which activities you’re doing,” said Fiona, who sometimes prefers the speed of Bunk Replies. “And about the funny things that happened — before you forget they actually happened.”
Some kids send lots of Bunk Replies, especially early on, to help combat homesickness. Yet some still write their letters on paper and send them through the mail. Fiona has sent her mom two of those, much to the latter’s delight.
“Maybe it’s because I’m 50 and I like real mail,” Donna Neidorf said with a chuckle. “I see her handwriting, I feel like I can smell her and imagine what it’s like in her bunk as she’s writing. So it’s more tangible for me.”
In the end, though, we’re all just kids. We occasionally forget to write, or we just get too busy making friends or some origami masterpiece in arts and crafts.
That’s why there’s Letter Writing Day. The technology underlying it may change, but its basic message doesn’t:
“I’m having lots of fun, but I still miss them,” Camryn Smoler, 12, of Miami said about her parents. “They’re the people who raised me, and I miss them.”