I recently read a New York Times article about one woman’s unfavorable experiences in summer camp and laughed out loud.
Like the author, I was not much of a joiner and hated sports. I also disliked getting dressed and undressed in a roomful of strangers. My first summer, I was the only girl still wearing undershirts so I’d change clothes in the bathroom. (Not that I fooled anyone. And most of those gals didn’t really need bras, either.)
I sucked at anything involving a softball, volleyball, golf ball, basketball, fencing foil, or bow and arrow. And unlike some other kids who might have also been less than stellar athletes, but who discovered at camp that they enjoyed drama, music, dance or even carpentry, I didn’t. My favorite “activity” was “shiur” during which we learned Jewish subjects. Unlike most kids (but also like the writer of the New York Times piece), I actually liked school.
I blessed my good fortune when, early that first summer, I broke my finger playing volleyball. I could then avoid sports.
I pretended to have earaches and studiously used the medicinal drops my mother sent with me to camp for “relief.” I could then avoid swimming.
In later years, I had my period at least four times in two months (ha!) so I could get out of the dreaded “overnights.” Peeing in the woods and sleeping in a sleeping bag on the rocky ground was just not for me.
I grew up in Manhattan, a real city girl. I (still) don’t get the appeal of nature, hikes, horses, lakes, and bugs.
So my first summer in camp, when the emphasis was on sports, I was miserable. I called home just about every other day, insisting that my parents come get me. They wouldn’t. Lucky for me.
Because my second summer in camp, things were different. I may have been really bad at athletics, but I discovered that I was really good with boys.
At 14, the summer before my freshman year at an all-girls high school, I started “going” with an “older guy” who was going into his senior(!) year of high school. The next year, I had a boyfriend by the end of the first week of camp–the first one in my bunk to be coupled. The summer after that, although I was going with someone else, I met the boy who, five years later would become my husband. There were a few more summer romances–always the very best kind, with the very best pop songs as a soundtrack.
When my older daughter went to camp the first time, Visiting Day was like a trip down memory lane. My husband and I met so many people with whom we ourselves had gone to camp.
That first Visiting Day, I saw a very dear, old friend with whom I had lost touch. Suddenly, we spied each other across the hilly campus. We ran towards each other and hugged tightly. My 9-year-old daughter looked at her father and asked, “Why is Mommy kissing THAT MAN?” She didn’t yet understand that the relationships formed during those wonderful summers were deeply felt, forever, across time and space.
That day was fun and nostalgic, poignant and… jarring. How had we gotten so old that we were no longer the campers? We were both in a funk the whole (very, very long) ride home.
For the most part, our four kids loved camp. Except for the summer when my older daughter was 12 and a bunch of mean girls were in her bunk. And the summer my younger son gave us the Visiting-Day-from-hell, crying, wailing, begging to be taken home. I wouldn’t even consider it. I knew that if he could get through a few bad weeks (which turned into several bad days) he’d come around, but if we took him home, he’d never go back. We were right.
Camp is an intense few weeks. It’s like six months on fast forward.
I remember shared confidences with new friends. Coming into my own in an identity different from the one “at home” and discovering things about myself I didn’t know. I remember the solitude and awe when, as the counselor on duty the night of the first moon landing, I looking up at that silver heavenly disc. I remember the outrageous beauty of an orange harvest moon sitting on the horizon and the summer of Woodstock, when we were on lock down since our camp was nearby. I remember the 4th of July fireworks at which (appropriately) I met my future husband. Who knew? Who could imagine then what life would bring? And, if we could, would we really have wanted to?
I remember that despite my lack of athletic prowess, I was “Color War” general. And I remember how proud I was when 23 years later my daughter was, too.
Like most of my friends and my husband and children, many of my fondest memories are from those summers. In an odd way, they are still emotionally nourishing.
So, if you are thinking of sending your kids to sleep-away camp, my advice is: do it. Your kids might kick and scream. They might be homesick. You might be surprised by how much you miss them. Or by how much you don’t miss them.
But, truly, it’s a gift. Forever.
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