“To Esme with Love and Squalor” by J.D. Salinger is one of my favorite short stories. It begins with, “Just recently, by air mail, I received an invitation to a wedding…. It happens to be a wedding I’d give a lot to be able to get to….”

Just recently I received an invitation to a wedding that I will give a lot to get to. The wedding is the first of a group of friends who met at All About Games and continued to be friends when the Game Loft opened. That group includes: Andrew Knight, King and Steven Bishop, Carlos LaHoz, Bill Yori, Paul Belden and James Sweetland. The wedding is for Andrew Knight and will be a kind of reunion for the earliest Game Loft members.

In the Salinger story a World War II airman meets a 13 year old school girl in England whose friendship allows him to get through the war with his, as she says, “F-A-C-U-L-T-I-E-S intact.” Salinger points out that it is through friendship we get through the rigors of life.

When we met this group of young men Ray and I were “recovering parents.” Having only the one child meant that we didn’t know what we were doing and we made a lot of mistakes. After our son left for college Ray vowed that he would never talk to anyone under the age of 30 again. I felt from the experience of parenthood that I was a failure as a mother and as a woman. It was a pretty grim time for us. Like the airman in the story we were shattered. We had no intention of running an afterschool program but sometimes you get what you least expect.

When we founded the Loft all of the men I listed above were in the 7th grade, they are now in their 30’s. At a recent meeting with several members of that group I asked them how the friendships they had made at the Game Loft had shaped them. James Sweetland told me that those friendships came at a crucial part in his development when his identity was forming. The friends he made then, both peers and adults, helped shape him. His friendships affirmed his values and gave him a reasonably safe environment that helped him become a resilient adult. He also established an identity as a gamer at that time which helped him find a constructive hobby to shape his time.

It has been my privilege to know and to game with all of these men through the years. Andrew is a behavioral health professional; King is head chef at Street and Company in Portland; Steven works for Harvard and studies at Harvard University; Bill returned to college this fall to finish his engineering degree; Paul farms, Carlos is a manager at an IT firm in Boston; and James lives in the Philippines with his girlfriend and two sons. They are fine men who are contributing to the life of their communities and generously remember the Loft.

That Game Loft friendship helped us as much as it helped the boys. Through their love and acceptance we were healed. Their friendship, now almost twenty years old, has put us back together as people and reassured us that we have something to give to young people.

You may be pleased to know that Ray and I have emerged with our “F-A-C-U-L-T-I-E-S intact.”

If your F-A-C-U-L-T-I-E-S are intact please consider a gift to The Game Loft.

I have been watching friendships bloom and thrive at the Loft since we started the program and still it is a mystery to me. I know that we prepare the groundwork like a gardener prepares a seed bed. We establish rules to keep kids emotionally and physically safe, we provide common experiences for growth, we give lots of room for talking about everything and nothing, and we strive to be consistent yet innovative. Those are the things that we do, but why does it work? I have no idea.

I know that the Loft friendships work even when there are disparities in background, class, school achievement, aspirations, and abilities.

Nathan and John

John as the underling  and Nathan as the King during Pax Britannia (playing Italy in 2007)

I know that safety is a big component in creating friendships. If you can discuss your opinions without fear of ridicule you have set the groundwork for friendship. At the Loft there is lots of room for varying opinions and for members to change their opinions over time. We expect change and welcome it. We don’t expect that kids will have the same values as adults or that all people will share a common perspective.

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Ryan and Noah during Road to the White House (2008)

I know that in school there are many gradations of what is acceptable. People are judged on things they can’t control like size, shape, clothing, and ancestry. One step out of line and you are a laughingstock. At the Loft we are less concerned about personal appearance.

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Lyta, Rebecca, Madryn, Jesse and Taran demonstrate proper recyling for the City of Belfast

I am aware that it’s not the way you wear your hair that makes for Game Loft popularity.

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Damion shows oiff a new style at the Game Loft Wild West party (2007)

I believe that the adventures of the mind that happen at the Loft go a long way toward the creation of friendships. Whether it is live chess or battling imaginary creatures in a Dungeons and Dragons game you have shared a bit of yourself that is seldom seen in other places.

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Live Chess game at City Park (a long time ago - maybe 2004)

I have seen that friendships develop when we are called upon to exercise the best of our abilities and when we are praised for our work. Sharing those victories with our friends increases and enhances friendships.

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Laithe and Devlin make theri presentation at the 1st Waldo County Speakers' Tournament (March 2014): the 2nd annual tournamernt is Feb. 28, 2015 - mark your calendars

 

I realize that all of these things create friendship. To maintain friendship they must be practiced over time. Over time we share ourselves, we forgive each other, and we treasure the qualities that we first admired. At the Loft we value each other as we are today and as the people we will become. We remember the past, enjoy today, and welcome tomorrow when all the mysteries of friendship may be revealed.

AMBER

Amber in 2007

In October we took a group of kids in grades 3-6 out of the mundane world and into the world of their imaginations. For one week they became hobbits on the trail of adventure. In reality they were still kids who have to ask permission from adults to go to the bathroom but in their imaginations they were warriors who could right wrongs and bring back prizes of great value. Feeling the threat, returning with the prize, was more than a game, it had reality because it was experienced by the group of friends. They shared a common experience and spoke the same language that brought them closer together.

Lone hobbit on the trail of adventure

The world seems to be full of danger when you are alone.

All kids have imaginations. Since all kids like to play together why do we go to such lengths to create a fantasy world for them to play in? The reason is that the more real the experience becomes the more they get to understand themselves and each other. The participants left the door of the Game Loft as kids and returned as heroes. They shared anticipation, fear, determination, courage, and respect. They bonded with each other over a common understanding and they included us in the story. For a time we were together united against a common enemy, proud of our solidarity, and brave in the face of overwhelming odds.

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True friends share the burdens of life.

All of this is an investment. We invest our time and creativity to create a vibrant world for kids. We share the things that are important to us and to them. This sharing breaks down the walls that exist between adults and kids, hobbits and humans, and the “what is” from the “what might be”. The friendships that are created enrich everyone in the group. This investment comes at a big cost in time, dollars, and imagination. We are rewarded, however, with the memories and the mutual respect that would have been impossible otherwise.

“A person is only complete when he has a friend to understand him, to share all his passions and sorrows with, and to stand by throughout his life.” Nishan Panwar

HOBBIT FRIENDS ON THE TRAIL OF ADVENTURE

“Birds of a feather flock together.”

Adolescents need friends in order to survive like plants need sunshine. We take that for an understood fact without fully understanding why. In her fascinating book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do, Judith Rich Harris explains that during the growing up phase we turn from our families as our central focus of identity and see ourselves through the lens of our friends. Our primary identity becomes who we are in the peer group. If our peer group is “the brains” we tend to read more or if we label ourselves as being part of the “stoners” we do everything possible to fit with the expectations of that group. Part of our group identity is biologically determined. Kids who mature physically early, who have good reflexes and strong bodies, and who enjoy competition will be more natural athletes and will identify as “jocks.”. It will be more difficult for kids who don’t have those characteristics to break into the peer group that values those traits. Kids in that group will copy the behavior they see around them and will conform, to one extent or another, to the standards of the group, even if it a negative or anti-social peer group.

When a kid does not have a peer group  he or she is vulnerable. There is no set of expectations that help him or her shape behavior. These kids are more susceptible to bullying; they are more lonesome; their behavior becomes erratic and their identities become confused. Kids without a peer group are not only isolated, they are lost. Like a plant starved for sunshine they become socially stunted because they fail to understand the social cues that are expected of them. It takes years for rejected adolescents to recover and some never do.

The Game Loft is not a solution for every kid but it works for lots of kids. The typical Game Loft kid has a pattern just as the typical athlete has another. Many Game Loft kids are introverted. That doesn’t mean they are quiet (just ask our staff about that) but that they thrive in smaller groups with more time to reflect on their experiences. Game Loft kids tend to live in a world of possibilities. Sometimes teachers find them “day-dreamy” and their peers may think they are out-of-step. They are often very bright and interested in new ideas. They have a respect for knowledge, sometimes spending hundreds of hours learning the complexities of strategy games. Many Loft kids think about how things could be improved like: games, the world, their lives, and other people. Others are more laid-back as long as their beliefs are not attacked, then they become intense. Not every Loft kid fits this pattern but the majority do.

For many kids who come to the Loft this is their first experience with finding others who value their world outlook. We make a huge effort to accept every kid and to value their beliefs. When this happens a formerly isolated kid begins to grow like a plant placed in a sunny window. There is a life-giving element to finding your own group. These kids become stronger and more resilient merely by the fact that they have found a personal identity.

For the next three weeks I will be focusing on stories of kids in our program who have found their peer group and how it has improved their world. As one boy said a decade ago, “I used to think I was weird, now I know I am unique.”

Please consider a donation to The Game Loft. We are a 501(c) 3 tax deductible charity. Your gift will help change the lives of Maine kids.

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