Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Camp Jessica

I've been thinking a lot about summer camp lately.  I had a really good conversation last month with my fiance's uncle about why sending your kids to camp is such a great idea.  On the other hand, my future sister-in-law asked, "Weren't you sad that your parents sent you away all summer?"  The answer is: no way!  I've always gone to some kind of camp, from the time I was two years old.  I went to day camp, arts camp, sports camp, sleepaway camp, even college prep camp at Yale.  When I was in college, I worked as a counselor at a couple of summer camps.  My sister and I were borderline obsessed with camp... she ended up working there for years after she was too old to be a camper and even has a 10 year canoe paddle award to prove it.  I loved camp so much that I turned down a chance to go to Amsterdam with my mom so I could go to camp instead.  (OK, so maybe I'm kicking myself for that one, but it was my Counselor-in-Training year and it ended up being very important to me).  It taught me a lot of life lessons that I feel have shaped me into the person I am today.  I learned how to be away from home for the first time, how to make friends even when I didn't know anyone, how to be somewhat uncomfortable and still have fun, and how to put others before myself.  One of the biggest things I learned at camp was that I could be myself, even if "myself" is a little weird... because everyone's weird and that's OK.  Thanks to facebook, I'm still in touch with most of the people I knew at camp and they feel almost like an extended family -- people I don't see often (or at all), but with whom I share a permanent bond.
I thought I might share some of my favorite camp experiences on the blog today so you can get a sense of the kind of crazy, amazing, challenging, character-building thing that is CAMP.

Weird Traditions
This is probably the most important one.  The traditions give campers the feeling that they're a part of something that the rest of the world wouldn't understand.  This is central to the feeling of belonging that camp can provide for even the most antisocial kids.  We're all in on the pranks, the ceremonies, the specific camp language.  It's like being in a fraternity, except that it builds you up rather than putting you down.
This image is from the climactic Candleboat ceremony at the end of each camp season.  Every camper gets a candle, every cabin group gets a boat, and those boats are then sailed across the canoe pond in the dark, making a gorgeous last image just as everyone's starting to feel really sentimental about leaving their friends for the summer.  This ceremony comes at the end of a campfire performance -- one of many during each camp session -- in which counselors read inspirational stories, give out awards for physical achievements, camp spirit, and strong character, and everyone sings songs together.
There are happy traditions too.  The day camp I used to attend had a Where's Waldo day every summer, in which they hid a life-size Waldo figure somewhere around camp.  Whichever cabin group found the Waldo would get a prize.  They also commemorated each week of camp by the camp director doing a coordinating number of cartwheels.  At sleepaway camp, the boys' and girls' cabins always played pranks on each other: either waking them up at 5am by banging pots and pans and shouting unit cheers, or stealing their unit sign in the middle of the night and putting it in a canoe in the middle of the pond.  These are the things that you kind of "had to be there" for.  These are the things that make campers a part of the group.

Fear- Team-Building Activities
Sometimes in life, you just have to let go of your B.S. and give something a try, even if you're scared or simply don't feel like doing it.  I learned this pretty quickly at camp.  Everyone had to participate in certain activities -- the climbing wall, the trust falls, the high ropes course, the hikes, (or, in my case) the sports.  If anyone got stuck at the top (or not quite the top) and had trouble coming down or continuing, no one would make fun of you.  The rest of your cabin group would be there to cheer you on, tell you that you can do it.  When someone inevitably gave up and had to have a counselor help them down, no one made you feel bad.  You would get a sincere, "good try," and "maybe next time," because there would probably be a next time.
I actually love climbing and high ropes, ziplines, etc.  I love the thrill and the sense of accomplishment.  I would probably never have figured that out if I hadn't gone to camp.  Something else I figured out at camp is that even though I hate playing softball or going to instructional swim, I still had to do it, and it wouldn't kill me to put some effort into the less fun parts of life. 

Survival: literally and socially
When I was a CIT (Counselor-in-Training), we all had to complete a wilderness survival challenge to prove that we were responsible enough to take a group of children on a camping trip.  Each of us was blindfolded and led to a campsite somewhere on the camp property.  We had to build a fire, build a shelter, cook dinner with the ingredients provided to us, and find our way back to main camp in the morning.  It was a rite of passage for all of the camp's oldest attendees that helped us transition from childhood to adulthood... or something like that.  At most, it taught us how to be more self-sufficient.  At the very least, it taught us how to build a fire.  That's a pretty cool thing to know how to do.
(this is the kind of lean-to shelter we had to build, and it looks like the CITs are still doing this)
Maybe more importantly, summer camp is like a crash course in social skills.  When you first arrive, you're thrown into a group of kids who you don't know, but who might know each other from home or previous years.  Suddenly, you have to spend every moment together for at least two weeks.  Some of the other kids might have a lot in common with you, but most of them won't.  The only thing you'll have in common is that you're all in the same figurative boat.  Especially at my sleepaway camp, the kids were from a very diverse variety of backgrounds, so we learned a lot from each other.  Each of us learned that we can't always be the center of attention.  The world doesn't revolve around us.  Campers who went out of their way to think of others before themselves were given a daily "I Am Third" award (the "third" refers to God first, everyone else second, yourself third).  Some people had bigger personalities than others and everyone kind of had to find a place for themselves in the camp microcosm.  Lucky for me, my particular brand of weirdness that maybe didn't work so well for me at school ended up helping me shine at camp.  Being willing to humiliate myself really came in handy for all of those weird traditions and team-building exercises.  
This was my camp family, the CITs of 2001.  That's me in the middle, feeling truly loved and like I belong in a way that I've rarely felt since then.  I don't even talk to a lot of my camp friends anymore, but I will always think about them and care about them.
Going to camp is an adjustment for everyone.  Some kids will enjoy it more than others.  But I strongly believe that even trying it one summer is an important life experience for kids to have.

I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but it's particularly poignant now that I've heard the news that a member of my extended camp family has passed away.  In memory of Little Jimolka.








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