The Perfect Combination of Serious and Silly

By ARCC Leader Carolyn Highland

Would you rather have candy corn for teeth, or candy canes for arms?

A group of ARCC leaders sits in an open field near Muir Woods during staff training and debates this well beyond the confines of what such a ridiculous question might indicate. We are all in our twenties, and not one of us finds this question odd or pointless. There is a lot to think about. Are the candy canes candy cane sized, or arm sized? Does the candy corn regenerate? Each member of the group puts forth an answer and a justification, and a rowdy discourse ensues about the merits and pitfalls of each type of sugary appendage.

Twenty minutes later we will find ourselves sharing personal stories about our lives, gaining insight into each other’s experiences, struggles, and points of view. We will hear about each other’s families, relationships, opinions, and stories. We will tell each other the specific things about each other that we love and appreciate. We will support each other, we will listen to each other, and we will get to know each other better in weeks than some people do in years.

We are in it. We are under the spell of an ARCC summer. For a week at the beginning in June, leaders get to be students, simulating a trip and getting to know each other. We sleep in tent city, we cook meals together on long wooden picnic tables, we play games. We get to do all of the things our students will do in the coming weeks. We ask the big questions, the little questions, and all the questions in between.

ARCC is a place where no question is too silly or too serious. One moment might find you answering what condiment you’d like to shoot out of your finger, and the next might find you describing the most difficult thing you’ve been through. All questions have their place, and the flow between the serious and the silly is seamless, effortless. You are only expected to share what you want, to challenge yourself by choice, but the environment lends itself to sharing more than you might otherwise. You are always being met where you’re at.

Humans are complex beings with a wide range of thoughts and emotions. So often we find ourselves adjusting to the situation, to the company, to what we feel is acceptable, and only share certain parts of ourselves. We don’t show up as the complex, fascinating glow-bugs that we truly are. In this way we fold ourselves down, we make ourselves smaller. We cut ourselves off from connecting with the humans around us in all the ways it is possible to connect.

At ARCC there is no folding, there is no smallness. People are encouraged to be their full, sprawling, intricate selves at every moment, and the connections and relationships that result reflect that richness.

We take silly things seriously. We play Birdie on a Perch, a game that involves running and jumping into your partner’s arms as quickly as possible while there are two moving circles of fifty other leaders trying to do the same thing. We play Squirrel, a game where whenever that word is yelled, no matter where you are, everyone has to get up off the ground in whatever way they can as fast as they can. We treat these games with a sanctity and determination that makes you feel like a kid again.

And we take serious things lightly—as a totally normal part of life. Never do you receive a look or a reaction that makes you feel like you’re being too intense or sharing too much or thinking too deeply about something. We pass long car rides asking each other go around questions. We sit around before we’re about to go our separate ways and tell each other everything we’ll miss about the others. We have in-depth life conversations in public and do chow circle in restaurants.

On the first van ride of the California Urban & Wilderness Service trip, our students sit silently in San Francisco traffic, and I look nervously at my co-leader Lavran. Why aren’t they talking to each other? Why aren’t they bonding yet? Lavran tells me later that evening that we have to be patient, we have to wait for the trip to unfold, we have to T the P—trust the process.

Little by little, we start asking questions. We ask them if they’d prefer candy corn for teeth or candy canes for arms, we ask them where they’d like to travel, we ask them about someone they looked up to, we ask them what their favorite thing about themselves is.

And after nearly a week and a half of camping together, of long van rides together, of trying new things together, of laughing and joking and learning, we sit on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park as the stars come out, and we ask them about a pivotal moment in their lives. We hear about mistakes and breakups and family issues and epiphanies and brave decisions. Lavran and I watch as our students share parts of themselves they don’t share with everyone, as we all sit in a circle and hold space for each other to be real. He and I look at each other, and I know we are both remembering the moment in the van at the beginning when we were all still strangers, when we weren’t sure if we’d get here. And now, with the expanse of the valley below us and the sky above us, we cry and hug each other and know we are experiencing something we’ll never forget.

Getting on the plane to leave San Francisco at the end of the summer is always a difficult moment. Something has broken. Something is over. Something that glimmered so brightly and felt so real has come to a close. I sit in the passenger’s seat of my co-leader David’s car as we cross the Golden Gate bridge and cry. This magical self-contained universe you have spent weeks cultivating dissolves and everyone returns to their regular lives. People scatter back to different corners of the world, resume their usual routines, default to small talk.

But what if you don’t? What if instead of attributing the magic to a space and time and convergence of people, you realize that it has been in you all along? That you can bring it anywhere you went? That it will never be broken, if you don’t allow it to be? That you can create space for that magic to come to the surface in others if you embody it yourself?

Every moment is an opportunity to be your best self. To show up as all of you, as the serious and the silly, and everything in between. ARCC trips have a way of naturally coaxing that out of us, but our lives do not just consist of a few weeks in the summer. We must show up as our best, whole, selves in all areas of our lives, and watch what happens around us.

As life dictates, times passes, seasons end, and we must return to our corners of the world. But we can take the magic to those corners and plant it there. We can bring the seriousness and the silliness and all the other vibrant shades of ourselves to those places even when we are not wrapped up in the glow of an ARCC summer. And all we have to do is show up as ourselves.

So ask yourself how you can go deeper in all of your relationships. Ask yourself how you can bring light and laughter to any situation. Ask yourself how you can get up off the ground as fast as you can on the off-chance that someone yells “Squirrel.” Ask yourself how you can support your friends and family members and classmates and coworkers. Ask yourself how you can speak and act authentically. Do those things and watch how everything around you shifts. How the magic spreads.


ARCC Programs has offered summer travel programs for teens for over 30 years. With travel programs for teens on six continents, there is something for everyone. Find a summer program on our website or request a catalog today.