After 33 Years, a Change at Jabberwocky

By C.K. WOLFSON

The cabins are a topple of blankets and mattresses, the last of the tents is being taken down, and remnant odds and ends have been packed in boxes and lined up along the ramp railings. It is the middle of the afternoon and the loudest sound is the leaves rustling overhead. Like an empty ballroom, it is after the season at Camp Jabberwocky, and the echoes of shouts and laughter still hover among the tree branches and empty rooms.

With the close of camp, John Lamb - the son of Jabberwocky founder Helen (Hellcat) Lamb, a campgoer since he was eight, a counselor since he was 14 - retired from the position he has held for 33 years as director of the Jabberwocky's August camp session.

"Camp flies by, but an hour is a year long," he says, taking a break from laying patio blocks to reflect on his work with the physically and mentally handicapped.

Relaxed and candid, he explains his decision to step down: "I would like to see the two camps more unified." With a broad sweep, he describes the "grand differences about things" that had, over the years, become apparent in the rules, organization and administration between the July camp, directed by his sister, Gillian Lamb Butchman, and the August camp.

"What's happening now is a definite schism that needs to be healed so that we can go forth with everyone on the same page. I'm hoping that getting away from the sibling rivalry will help to calm that down," he says, adding that it should make it easier for the board to run the camps. "I hope that it generally keeps running the same way. I think there are fears that it will kind of fall into being like any other institution."

There are other reasons why the timing seems right. He points out he's still capable of being an active participant, and the experienced staff, some of whom have been there close to 25 years ("Obviously somewhat nuts because they volunteer to be here"), will be remaining in place to carry on.

Next August, Jack Knower, a special education teacher from New York and a Jabberwocky counselor for 25 years, will most likely assume the position of director. Mr. Lamb will continue to be a presence - he says it as if it were a choice instead a way of life - serving on the board, on the buildings and grounds committee, painting illustrations on the new bus (as he's done on the others), "puttering around," and for the last two weeks in August, directing Jabberwocky's musical production.

He smiles as he describes the 16-hour days that have for years involved his wife, Kathleen, and his daughters Caitlin, studying for her master's degree at Wheelock College, Sarah, a dancer in London at the Royal Ballet, and Dorian, a junior at Oberlin College.

Even after campers go to bed, he explains, someone will be up for one reason or another, have a seizure, have to go to the bathroom. "You don't listen to the radio, you don't watch any television, you don't read the paper. You have no news at all because you're flat-out doing stuff the whole time. The only stuff that filters in is big news: Half the world fell off today."

One of the counselors helping to close the camp comes to inform Mr. Lamb that the dryer on the left is not working again. He nods, then continues explaining that it is after camp, when he goes back to reading the paper every day, that he finds himself getting slightly depressed. "You realize there are people making terrible mistakes. Maybe if they came to work here," he says, gesturing toward the cabins, then throws his head back and laughs.

Resuming his job as a special education teacher at Devotion School in Brookline always seems like being on vacation after camp. He grins. "You get to sit down. You can be home at four o'clock in the afternoon. Here you get up at six and 10 o'clock at night you're still going - every waking minute. Something's always going wrong and something's always going right - major and minor miracles and disasters all the time. And that's what makes it so great. It's pain. It's tears. It's people, your own children. It's life."

There are between 30 and 35 campers from eight to 55 years old (Skipper Brooks, who has been coming since 1964), between 20 and 25 staff members, and a huge waiting list.

"They have to be fed and taken to the bathroom. They have to be dressed, and in an emergency you have to somehow get them out. So they are dependent on you, and it's a huge responsibility because they are so easily hurt. The wheelchairs are really dangerous. The kids who are unable to put their hands out to break a fall, go right on their heads. These are things people don't think about."

As he talks his gaze roams over the camp buildings and grounds, much of which he either designed or built.

"Whatever you have, it's because you're lucky," the 59-year-old self-declared atheist and political activist declares. "You know the expression, ‘There but for the grace of God go I?' I was thinking what a scuzzy thing that is, because you're saying that God has somehow chosen you, has graced you with the ability to walk and talk and speak clearly. But these other people - somehow God has shunned them. Well, what kind of God would do that? That's a terrible, terrible thing. What have these kids done to deserve that? They're born this way because bad things happen. It's bad luck. And these guys are in a lot of pain that they have to deal with day after day. But they are amazing."

Mr. Lamb, who maintains his British citizenship, is wearing a T-shirt printed with a design by Skipper. He describes some of the challenges for counselors, such as learning not to take it personally when a camper acts out. "Sometimes you can start to think they're doing it on purpose. And that's one of the things we have to tell the counselors, it's not you and you have to step back. It's the incredible frustrations they have being locked in a body that doesn't work, and a mind that does work. They need someone to help them, and they need you."

Campers sometimes apologize, he says, a response he rejects. When something goes wrong, it's not their fault. "Why are you sorry?" he asks them, but realizes they know people will avoid them if they become demanding.

"They walk a really fine line emotionally. And it's our job to make it a little less hard for awhile and give them a good time. When the kids are here, you'd be amazed at how much laughter there is. People are cracking up all the time."

He explains he doesn't believe in awards, doesn't believe trying hard or working hard are appropriate measures of success. "I've seen other kids working twice as hard and doing lousy because they don't have the particular ability. At camp, we allow them to do whatever it is they do. We try and find it, and allow them to feel good about it. And not pressure them."

A bemused expression flickers across his face as he speaks, frequently accompanied by a yelp of a laugh that signals irony more often than humor.

Another counselor walks up with Mr. Lamb's Tisbury, a friendly yellow lab, and the conversation pauses briefly while Mr. Lamb calmly reacts to the news that someone's medication has been left in the refrigerator, and that the dog's tail seems somewhat oddly bent.

"People are always trying to change people, and that's the problem," he says, referring to educational systems. "And I hate it. We're trying to make them better students, better citizens, we're trying to cram crap into their brains." He laughs. "It doesn't work," he says emphatically. "Everyone has their niche. But in school you're not allowed to have a niche. You're supposed to excel in all the subjects."

He looks around him at evidence of his life's investment, the buildings he has designed and built, the herringbone brickwork of the courtyard which he help lay, the drawings he painted on the Jabberwocky buses and the sets for the annual productions.

"Every living thing has as much right to be here as every other living thing. Is a spider flawed? Is a tree flawed? We are what we are. Ants have wars. Perfection? What is a perfect human? I can't even imagine."