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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Granite State of Mind, #35: Sargent Camp, Hancock

Updated: Jun 24, 2019

"Jeremiah was a bullfrog..."

It used to be that a big part of sixth grade at Stratham Memorial School was the weeklong outdoor experiential learning camp out in Hancock, halfway between Manchester and Keene. Known more formally now as the Sargent Center, it was Sargent Camp to us. We went in the late fall of 1986, for a week of hikes and woodsy adventure and the kind of team-building, personal growth exercises that would become so deeply familiar during my RYLA career. But it was all new then, the flip chart brainstorming and the group decision processes and the thought-provoking challenges. New stuff, even with old faces - back in Stratham in those days we were a small community, and you'd been in the classroom with the same kids since first grade. Everyone knew everyone else, for good or for ill. Many of those from Mr. Nelson and Ms. Lee's '86-'87 sixth grade know the drill. We packed into those narrow bunkhouses like a giant slumber party or diet boot camp, telling jokes and wondering what we were in for.

Though the Sargent Camp experience was a shared one across the years, ours was a bit more memorable given the heavy and unexpected snows that fell midway through the week. None of us had much in the way of winter gear, but we soldiered on regardless, doing the blindfold bridge crossings and building snowmen on the once-green common. It was during that snowman project that one of the great realizations of my life happened, though I didn't really internalize it until much later. The staff (probably college kids, though at the time they seemed so much older) were watching us work in small groups, and handing out recognitions for those demonstrating certain virtues. One of them was leadership, and I can remember being so eager to land one of those babies. You can recall being twelve, being desperate to project a certain identity. I was never a popular kid. I had friends, of course, but I was never one of the beautiful people, the juvenile glitterati - I had what John Adams called a tendency to plumpness, and an arrogant streak that was very effective at eroding whatever goodwill I might otherwise have earned. (Yeah, yeah, some things never change. Shaddup.)

In any event, I didn't get a leadership nod. But another kid, even less popular than me, asked to join in the little group I was working with. Sure, I said, and got him involved in what we were doing. Leadership, I thought. Instead, the roving staffer pulled me aside a bit later and cited my kindness. I was a bit taken aback. Kindness has never been my signal virtue - I care deeply about people and have tried to be of service my whole life, but with a sort of curmudgeonly bent that is rarely characterized as kind. I've been chewing on that one incident for thirty years now, and finally come to the conclusion that leadership is a skill, but a meaningless one without purpose. And while overt kindness continues to elude me more often than not, I've labored long and hard to make compassion the central tenet of my public life. I doubt anyone will ever consider me the kindest or nicest guy they know. But nobody cares more than I do.

Thirty years. Don't they go by in a blink?

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