We were all out contra dancing. It’s a type of line-dancing with a lot of twirling and jumping and partner-changing. I loved watching the kids bump into each other and help each other learn the dances. It was fast-paced. If you didn’t keep up, you were likely to cause a train wreck. I was watching the blur of young and old couples, when a finger jabbed my side. It was Rachel.
“Eliza is crying and she’s calling her mom to tell her to pick her up!” Rachel blurted out.
Oh boy. Eliza had been homesick all week, moping and crying and being generally anti-social. Being the only female counselor, I was “mom.” Rachel ran ahead and I followed, trying to form a plan of action. Where did she get a cell phone? Eliza was curled up on the stairs, surrounded by the other girls. I shooed the other girls away and sat down next to Eliza. She was wearing blue jeans and a purple cardigan. Her black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Tears streamed down her face and her eyes were swollen and red.
“My mom wants to talk to you. She said she’s going to bring me home,” Eliza said with a big smile. That’s the first smile I’d seen from her all day. My heart sank. I didn’t want Eliza to miss our backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, but I didn’t want her to be miserable either.
I stepped outside to call her mother. I barely said Hello? and the mother started crying. My heart sank further. Her daughter was 13 and had never been away from home. I barely considered myself an adult and here was a grown mother reaching to me for comfort and advice. She asked my advice. I gave her the advice I was trained to give: “This is a rare opportunity for a young lady to gain independence. If not today, then some day she will need to face her homesickness.”
After much deliberation and crying and comforting, Eliza’s mother came to a decision. Without the courage to break her own daughter’s heart, she asked me to tell Eliza. Eliza’s despair manifested itself physically in the van on the way home. It is amazing how emotions can affect the stomach. In the end, Eliza was too sick to participate and went home.
As an environmental educator, I encountered homesick children all the time. The most common symptoms were: crying, isolation, loss of appetite, upset stomach, and lack of interest. Many students ask to call home, but this usually exacerbates the problem. Homesickness surfaces during “down time” when kids have time to think – especially on the first night. Catch homesickness early because it is contagious! Pull the homesick student aside and provide comfort, but mostly provide distraction.
Eliza was a special case. Most students settle in by the second or third day. Her story shows the complexity and seriousness of homesickness. These are real emotions and real physical manifestations of those emotions. Educators often experience homesick children, but what about their parents? What struggles do they face by saying “No, you cannot come home?” At what point should we let our children come home?
Interestingly, Eliza met up with our group at the end of the backpacking trip. She was eager to hear our stories. She repeatedly expressed her regret that she could not come. Perhaps it is good that she felt this regret because next time it will motivate her to take the chance.