Every camper has at least one new experience during the summer. Mine came during a day trip to Busch Gardens, an amusement park in Tampa. I was 10, and too short for most of the more exciting rides at theme parks. My mom used to warn me that if I went on something I was too short for, I could fall out and die, so I was petrified of roller coasters and all other “grown-up” rides. But my camp self was so much braver than my home self, and so, at the suggestion of one of my counselors, I stuffed my Spice Girls sneakers with tissue and barely made the height requirement for the Python, a short roller coaster with two loop-de-loops. It was the most fun. I’ve loved roller coasters ever since.
I idolized my counselors when I was a kid. I wanted to be just like them. They weren’t strict or formal like most of my teachers were, and they were all between 21 and 25 years old, so they were cool with hanging out with us, but responsible enough to take care of us. My favorite memories of being a camper involve spending time with them, whether we were just sitting around talking in a classroom or running around trying to shoot each other in laser tag. They always made me feel interesting and worthy of their time, even though they were cool college kids and I was just a baby teen.
The counselors would let us walk around theme parks in groups without a chaperone, but they wouldn’t embarrass us if we came to them crying over a fight with a friend over something dumb like what ride to go on next (dumb fights always happen on overnight trips). The counselors gave us the freedom to learn our own lessons. If we didn’t feel like putting on sunscreen, they wouldn’t force us to wear it; they’d just let us get sunburned so we’d see exactly why our parents had been so insistent.
My counselors were the older siblings I never had. They were always there to talk, play games, take care of me, encourage me. When I was 12, my unit was involved in a serious game of Wiffle ball. Two minutes before the end of an inning, I was the very last person up to bat. My team already had two outs, the bases were loaded, we were down by a couple runs, and the literal clock was literally ticking behind me. When one of my counselors pitched me the ball, I made contact—and I didn’t just hit it, I hit it out of the park. I helped score four runs with that swing. We won the game, and everyone ran to hug me, pat me on the back, and scream in astonishment. The next thing I knew, my counselor, Marc, was holding me on his shoulders above the crowd, screaming “BABE RUTH,” which he called me for the rest of the week. I had never been particularly athletic at school, and I certainly was never treated like the most valuable player of anything. But Marc made me feel like a hero, and I still feel awesome about myself any time I think of that moment. And if I’d struck out and lost us the game, I know he would have consoled me and congratulated me for trying. That’s just what counselors do.
My last summer as a camper was the summer after eight grade. The next year I returned to the same camp as a counselor in training (CIT). As amazing as it is to be a camper, I think counselors get the better end of the deal. We’re paid to make summers unforgettable for young people, and even though it’s exhausting and a lot of responsibility, who wouldn’t want to make art, go swimming, play games, and play music with 20 kids who love you day in and day out?
A few summers ago, on an overnight trip to Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure, a bunch of my campers were in line for a roller coaster. One of them, a 13-year-old named Matthew, had second thoughts—he’d never been on a roller coaster, and he was scared. I encouraged him to give it a try. He finally relented, but on one condition: He wanted to sit next to me. I’d figured he would want to look “cool” by sitting next to his “cool” friends, so I was touched that he chose the low-status seat next to mine on the ride. The roller coaster (the Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit) was awesome, and as we disembarked, Matt threw his arms around me and yelled, “Thank you!” I asked what he was thanking me for and he said, “For the best experience of my life!” He spent the rest of the day hopping from ride to ride with his friends. It’s still hard for me to hold back tears when I tell this story.
(I don’t live in Florida anymore, but this summer I plan to teach music at a summer camp in New York. I can’t wait.)
The fleeting nature of summer is also part of what makes camp so magical. Every day at camp is so active—you’re hopping from pool to field to gym to theater to bus to theme park to bus—that eight weeks seem to go by in the blink of an eye. By the fifth week, I’m usually begging time to slow down because I don’t want it all to end.
Cramming so many new experiences into such a short period of time makes camp a pressure cooker for personal growth—the camper who arrives in June is different in so many ways from the one who goes back home in August. Most kids become more confident, with a wider range of abilities, a better understanding of themselves and others, and, of course, more friends.
Saying goodbye to camp friends is terribly hard, especially when they don’t live near you. When I was 13, on the last night of my last summer as a camper, about 60 of us sat in a big circle outside, and one by one we listed our funniest/best moment of the summer and what we’d miss the most when it came time to say goodbye the next day. “My favorite part of the summer was the ghost tour,” one kid said. “I’ll miss the white-chocolate bread,” said another. When my turn finally came to speak, I got up, inhaled—and then immediately collapsed onto the ground, sobbing. I was so sad about leaving camp, and so thankful for everything it had given me. My friends and counselors came running over to hug me, which was really nice, but I couldn’t even formulate a sentence. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe, I just had to sit there and let it happen. That still ranks as one of the most emotional moments of my life.
There’s an expression that camp people use: “We live 10 for 2”—meaning we spend 10 months of the year counting down the days until those eight weeks at camp. We write frantic emails to one another: “Are you coming back this summer?!? Jared, Benny, Barbara and I are all going back!! You have to come back!!!” We live for camp, we long for camp, we love camp. Camp will forever be a part of me in everything I do, because camp is more than a place—it’s a way of life. ♦