summer camp

It’s that time of year again, when parents pack up their kids and send them off to camp. My sister and I attended both day camp and sleep away camp on and off from the time we were 8 and 9. Overall, I hated it.

I so wish I had the letters that I had written back home to my Mom. They were priceless. I know she saved them, but at some point they were lost. I wrote about how awful the counselors were and how much I just wanted to come home. I accused the staff of being everything from racist to downright negligent.

Maybe one of the reasons I disliked camp so much is that in many ways it is like a Reality TV show (which I also dislike and don’t watch). I believe that anyone who thinks what is portrayed on shows like Survivor and Real Housewives is real, needs a reality check of his or her own. Much of camp is also very unreal. The idea is to get close to nature, but not too close. Safety first.

I remember at one camp we had to rake the paths so that they had little zen garden lines – how is that natural? At another, we swam only in a chlorinated pool, and at another one, we kayaked in a man-made lake that was not much more than 5-feet deep all around.

Camp directors know that letting a bunch of horny college students whose main goal in life is to get drunk, take care of a group of children is not wise. It’s cheap. And so they build checks and balances into the system to avoid mishaps. The better camps make it seem like it all a big game with songs. No one wants to have to call a parent and say your child was eaten by a bear or lost in the wilderness.

Of course, one thing every parent (and camper) fears is getting lost or being left behind on an outing. For the uninitiated, the way camp works is that is has built-in redundancies to ensure that as few as mistakes as possible are made.

When you go on a field trip, you stick with your assigned camp counselor who takes responsibility for just your group. It is usually less than a dozen kids, and typically all the same age and gender. Each group is usually given a name – something to do with nature – think daffodils or big dippers. And oftentimes each camper is assigned a buddy – one more person to – hopefully – watch out for you. Again, much like those Reality TV shows there are kids who are backstabbers or just clueless.

In this way when it is time to get back to camp, the head counselor checks in with each group counselor to ensure that everyone in his or her group is accounted for. There are usually headcounts and even roll calls to make sure there is no need to involve a parent, or in Reality TV terms, call the lawyers.

Of course campers bear some responsibility for getting back to camp safely too. They need to pay attention to things like when the bus will be leaving, stay with their group, and keep track of time. Also as a buddy, if your buddy is not there, you need to speak up and let someone know. Otherwise it’s all, if you are not here, raise your hand.

Parents too, need to do their fair share. Making sure kids understand that they need to listen to instructions given by counselors and also know what to do if they should become separated from the group. I grew up in an age before cell phones, but the basics always apply: seek out the help of a grown up. If you are out in the woods, stay on the trail.

I know my mom also stressed the idea of looking out for each other. I think a part of me feared my sister wandering off and being left behind, and my being in even greater trouble if I also hadn’t stayed behind trying to locate her (I was the oldest and thus more responsible after all).

Amazingly we were never left behind. We were usually often the last kids picked up, but that is another story.

There was one interesting encounter I remember in a parking lot at the drop off point for one of the sleepover camps we attended. There was a group photo that we were given as we exited the bus. One of the dads came up to my mom and said it looked like she had the happiest girl camper (referring to me and the smile on my face in the photo) and the unhappiest boy camper (referring to my sister whose hair was quite short at the time and who had a giant pout on her face). Of course the opposite was probably more true. My sister enjoyed camp – she probably did have the makings of a Reality TV show contestant – a winning one, at that.

If you are considering sending your child(ren) off to summer camp, but have never been, I suggest watching Meatballs, which stars a very young Bill Murray. Listening to This American Life’s piece on summer camp is another good reference. Some people just weren’t meant to be campers.

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