This essay originally appeared in the Poughkeepsie Journal, back in the day when I wrote a column oxymoronically entitled “Understanding Adolescence.” (As if that were even possible!) My kids have all departed their teens, but I still have camp envy! Enjoy!
A sure sign that summer is in full swing is the coming and going of kids to and from the magical kingdom of sleep-away camp. Spending a summer with 18 of your very best friends, living in a rustic fashion, can be a very liberating experience for many kids, although they may need to be re-programmed when they get back. Societal constraints are so limiting.
A sure sign that my teenage daughter has returned from camp is that everything she owns is…damp. Not just musty, camp damp, but damp with the sorrow of summer adventures left behind, of relationships marked with a fierce intensity, of yearning and longing…to return…to camp. The car ride home from the Berkshires is a thrilling ride, stories of bunk life and showering with shoes on, triumphant color war victories, of getting over on the Evil Counselor from Some Unknown Country with a can of shaving cream. The thrill of romance! The day we all dressed Goth! The Big Banquet! I want to go!
I have camp envy! I want to go live in a bunk with all my girls! I want to wear jammies all day! I want to complain about the food, and have my greatest worry be whether or not my mom will be able to successfully sneak contraband goodies into camp via the old “Re-Stuff the Teddy Bear Trick”. I want to come home…damp.
The power of camp, for a lot of kids, is that it is their first experience in living away from their families. While still subject to authority, they have the fierce strength of an army of their peers behind them. This is heady stuff for adolescents. Camp is a very growing time, with an enormous learning curve. Young teens are great observers of each other’s behavior, and the bunk is a great observatory. It very quickly becomes clear which personality traits separate Camp Captain from Camp Flirt.
In the strange but wonderful loyalty of the camp social system, regardless of what social transgressions your kid may have committed, your bunk has your back. This entails intense drama for some teens who are experimenting with relationships and freedom outside of home base. Some kids master this effortlessly, and for others it is very difficult. The freedom to color outside the lines a little can be heady or scary.
Every year, when my daughter comes home for camp, I am impressed with the scope of her adventures, but more importantly, with the depth of her relationships with her camp friends. Social Media and cell phones have made it possible for camp friends to stay in close touch, and they do. They celebrate each other’s successes and weep for each other’s losses, from all around the world. The bond they share is somewhat indescribable— the kind of passionate friendship and acceptance that comes from sleeping 18 to a room, and sharing one massive wardrobe, I guess.
My daughter’s camp experience is about her friends more than anything. She and her pals all flourish in a society where girls can freely walk arm in arm without being called names, and where girl-loyalty supersedes girl-boy-loyalty. She enjoys a little drama, without the school-year knowledge that at every waking moment she and her middle school peers are on display for the social Queen Bees who can make or break 8th grade. She has an opportunity, every summer, to explore who she is in a space that is peer-driven but somehow wonderfully nourishing. It is worth eleven months of longing, beginning the second she comes home, and ending the day we drop her off the following summer.
Every summer, she comes home a little stronger, a little wiser, a little more true to herself. Each year as I let her go, I find my eyes are…damp. And when she’s back? I am cracking up until I cry, listening to stories of the bunk she left behind, and happy to have her back, until next summer!