“The way you overcome shyness is to become so wrapped up in something that you forget to be afraid.” — Lady Bird Johnson

It is estimated that 75% of all people fear public speaking and some studies show that people fear public speaking more than they fear death. On Saturday the Game Loft will co-host the second annual 4-H public speaking tournament for those brave kids who might say, “Give me oratory; don’t give me death.” For the most part these are not extraverted kids who long to be on the stage. Few of them participate in theater and many of them are shy. The reason they participate in this event is that they are so enthusiastic about their subjects that they want to share their ideas.

shy kid

Right now we are working with a young man we will call Sol who is feeling overwhelmed by his fears. He is afraid (and with some justification) that his family will fall apart. Sol is afraid that he can’t cope with the demands of school, and he is worried that his future does not have much promise. Those are some heavy burdens for a kid to carry. He has two options: to fail or to succeed and at this time I don’t know which one Sol will choose.

On Saturday Sol may choose to speak about the role of the Game Loft in his life. He may reflect on the support he has been given and the strength he derives from the friendships of his peers and elders. He may talk about the way his life has changed in the past few years since he has begun attending the Loft. He may talk about the exhilaration he feels when he wins a game or the pride he feels in having friends. He might, for those few moments on stage, get so wrapped up in his message that he forgets his daily fears. If that happens we will have had a little victory. But that victory is not guaranteed. Sol may choose not to be with us. He might stay home with his electronic toys and his family issues and he might retreat into his old patterns.

Sol knows that failure is a possibility because he has seen the members of his family fail so many times. A year or so ago he wondered why he should try to grow up since the adults around him seemed so miserable most of the time. The pattern of failure is familiar in his household but the pattern of hope is new. Becoming wrapped up in the promise the Loft has given him is like learning a new language. It is difficult to learn the words but even more difficult to think and act in that new “language” of success.

On Saturday I will be waiting at the door of the Belfast Free Library for Sol to enter. If he gets there, if he shuffles to the front of the room, if he opens his mouth and looks at the audience, if he makes a speech no matter how halting or tentative, it will be a sign. It will say that no matter how difficult the new language of success may be that he is willing to immerse himself in it. It will show that he has faith in what we are offering through the Loft. It will be a reward to all of us who have worked with Sol. Please send your good thoughts to all the kids who are struggling to find the best in themselves.



“Elle” is half child and half woman. Right now since she lives between the two she is awkward and nervous but someday she will be lovely. One minute she is laughing with her friends and the next minute worried that her laugh is too loud or that the joke wasn’t all that funny. Laughter lights up her face and then it clouds over with self-consciousness. She has no idea of how beautiful she is and that innocence makes her even more beautiful. Boys haven’t noticed her yet and she is afraid they never will. Part of her wants to rush into adulthood while another wants to cling to the familiar and safe. At fifteen she hates the word “wait.”

Years ago I studied folklore and I am always amazed by what folk tales have to tell us. One of the Grimm stories is about a girl who falls asleep just before she reaches womanhood. Her guardians put her in a glass casket where all the world can pass by and see how lovely she is. She will sleep undisturbed waiting for a lover’s kiss to awaken her. That’s where “Elle” is now. She is suspended between childhood and womanhood and she is lovely. But as we know from folk tales there is always a wolf or other wild beast waiting to take advantage of the innocent.

I worry about kids like “Elle” who are naïve and vulnerable and worried that their chance will never come. Recently a colleague from Nevada sent me an email with a warning about the dangers of social media and young people. He was concerned about strangers stalking them when they reveal too much about themselves. I researched the topic and found that while there is a threat it is not from strangers lurking in the virtual “bushes.” Research studies have found that the real threat to innocent kids like “Elle” is from the “friend of a friend” they meet through social media. The vulnerable kids can be seduced by the attention they receive. They are anxious to fall in love and are flattered by the attention they receive from slightly older admirers. These admirers offer romance to the vulnerable. They push the young person into a relationship they are not ready to handle. Many of these relationships are illegal because of the age difference between the parties.

At the Loft we do everything possible to ensure the safety of our kids. We encourage friendships but discourage exclusive relationships. We encourage face-to-face contacts between peers rather than electronic communication. We try to channel kids into age appropriate activities with peers or carefully screened adult mentors. We try to keep “Elle” and her friends protected from the world until they are mature enough to find the prince or princess of their dreams.

Sleeping BeautyAs you read this I am visiting the New York International Toy Fair. If you see the photos on the news I am one of the hundreds of tiny shoppers on the display floor. We will be back next week with ideas about great new games and puzzles. In the meantime our excellent staff will be manning both the Game Loft and All About Games.

What would you do if one day you woke up and found that seemingly overnight you had turned into a monster? Hair was sprouting in unexpected places, you felt a deep rage without understanding its causes, and you heard the call to leave your family and join your pack? That is the theme of the role play game “Werewolf” and it is also a metaphor for adolescence. Somewhere around the age of 13 physical, mental, and emotional changes transform our lovable kids into “monsters.” No one understands them except for the members of their “pack.” If you are a parent or an adult who loves teenagers you have seen all of this in one form or another. It is a great time of loneliness for kids and desperation for parents.

Imagine being alone in the world - ugly, unlovable, rejected by your once devoted parents, frightened, isolated, and angry. It’s pretty scary stuff. Where can you turn? When the desire to retreat from an alien world hits many kids turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to block out their pain. The lucky ones turn to the support of peer groups that can nurture them as the werewolf pack nurtures its kindred.

The analogy only stretches so far but at the Loft we are the “pack” that creates safety in numbers and peer-to-peer support. Bill Yori was one of the first gamers to join our Werewolf game in the early years of the Loft. He was no more or less monstrous than his peers. His “fangs” and “claws” were similar to all the other adolescents we have seen over the years. His isolation was painful but not unique and if he had hair sprouting from unexpected locations he was discreet enough not to show it in public.

Bill and his fellow werewolves acted out their rage in stories of valor and solidarity. They shot imaginary bad guys and won the respect of their friends. They knew it was play but they were living in the metaphor. Their characters learned how to take decisive action and somehow that translated into the reality of their lives. Their characters took responsibility for their actions and so did the players. Their characters felt suffering and loss but learned how to endure and so did Bill and his friends. By trying out independence and courage they learned what those words meant. When Bill’s mom died his friends, his “pack”, was there for him.

Bill went to college and came back to Waldo County. After years in the corporate world he has recently gone back to UMO to complete his engineering degree. He is still a gamer and still loyal to his original “pack.” I’m not a big fan of scary subjects, the world is scary enough for me, but I have met and befriended a number of “werewolves.” Somehow they all were transformed from monsters to friends and neighbors of the decidedly human variety. Back then Thom Roberts ran the Werewolf game for Bill and his peers and now he is doing it again every Friday night at the Game Loft for another generation of werewolves. There is a tremendous reward for all of us when we are able to see kids struggle and survive the painful transition from monsters to mentors.

photoGame Loft alumnus Bill Yori at a recent career day event

10th Anniversary 254The Loft has been surveyed more times than I can count and still the researchers can’t find the secret of what makes this program so great. Try as they will, the kids come out “average” on every measure except that even they, the outsiders who have had so little contact with our kids, know that they are anything but “average.” Years ago I started my own surveys that are unscientific but revealing. I asked the kids what makes the Game Loft work. James Knight (no relation to Andrew Knight of the previous story), put it this way, “food, friends, and safety.”

Now let me tell you a little about James before I go on. When James gave me these three words he was a junior in high school. He was a success story by anyone’s definition--- smart, charismatic, kind, and decent. He was athletic, a member of the Lego robotics team, the lead in the school play - you get it, just an all-around great guy. I haven’t seen James in years but I would bet he is all of that and more today. James fit in with every crowd and I am sure that nobody ever considered bullying him. So when he said, “food, friends, and safety” I understood the first two but bleated out, “safety?”

The worry about safety seemed like an inner-city concern far from our little nest in Waldo County. I thought that we had no danger here but I was wrong. James explained to me that schools, no matter where they are, don’t feel safe to kids. They may be safe from earthquakes and fires and missile strikes but they are not safe places. A safe place is where you can be yourself without fear of ridicule.

Fear of ridicule keeps us all in a confined space but it does more than that to adolescents. It keeps them from growing into the people they were meant to be.

Fear breeds conformity in all the worst senses of that word. Fear makes us small and tense. We watch other people expecting them to devastate us with a word or a look. Holding all of that in makes kids testy or depressed and turns some people to bullying. Fear of ridicule pollutes our schools, our families, our clubs, and our lives.

You know that bumper sticker that says, “Dance like no one is watching.” It implies that you can be goofy or inept or clumsy and no one will care. I don’t live in that kind of world and neither do you and it doesn’t exist at the Game Loft either. Of course there are judgments at the Loft because we are human but at the Loft we can dance as though we are among friends who will forgive and forget our clumsiness. We can try and fail and still be safe.

For James safety existed in a number of different settings but for a lot of other Loft kids that isn’t the case. The ridicule they endure is a form of torture.

For many kids there is no island of safety but for our kids there is the Game Loft.

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