Articles and essays by parents attesting to the merits of summer camp for their children abound. I want to write one about why I go to camp—me, a fifty plus year old psychologist and single mother of three grown boys, who probably has no business taking time off from her practice or the myriad unsettled affairs having to do with home and family life.
The camp I go to is in Fryeburg, Maine, a small town at the edge of New England’s White Mountains. It’s what’s considered these days to be a traditional, even “old-fashioned,” summer camp, offering every sport and activity imaginable, and only a four or a seven week option. There are people who’ve come as campers or staff and who have never left, and this year the camp is celebrating its ninetieth anniversary with a big reunion and lobsters for all.
I don’t actually go to camp as a camper, although I did for many years as a child and then as a teenager — and to this very same one. I go as a staff member now, my role a blend of psychologist, staff trainer/support person, and camp aficionado/historian. My days are spent talking with homesick kids or helping counselors manage the dynamics of their particular group of eight children, all of whom are learning to live together under the same, smallish, roof. I find the kid who’s preoccupied with worries about a sick relative back home, and the one who is trying too hard to be cool in an environment that values different things than the ones that make you popular at home. In between, I do what the kids do: I get up for flag raising and show up at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I hike mountains and act in ridiculous skits and swim in the river and ride horses and sometimes get up at dawn to go swimming while riding. I dress for Orange Day and Tube Sock Tuesday and the All-Camp Dance, and let them stick a fish costume on me to break Color War.
I go to camp because it’s where I can still play. I pull pranks and get in trouble and play four square in the main office with a hamburger hat on my head. But I also go to camp because it’s where I am part of a community that I have grown to cherish. Just going to a camp wouldn’t interest me, and certainly wouldn’t be enough of a pull for me to pack up every June and head north. It’s this camp and its people that I love, in the same way I imagine devotees of other camps love their camp and their people, and believe them (mistakenly, of course) to be the best, in much the same way that I know mine to be. My camp friends and I all joke about waiting ten months every year for the two during which we reunite. That first evening every year in mid-June when all the staff arrive at camp—it’s one of my favorite days of the year. We hug and laugh and are delirious with joy and the anticipation of another camp season. And now, especially, with my parents and brother gone, and my youngest two (twins) leaving for college in the fall, I’ll find a needed comfort in recognizing that there is at least this one community to which I belong, and to whom I matter.
And what a community it is—simultaneously nostalgic and embracing, magnetic and transformative. I see the transformation every summer. Campers may know only that they’re making up cabin skits for campfire, but they see what it means to be inclusive, to find a way for everyone in a group to be useful, and to discover the joy of being a part of something larger than oneself. Campers may think only that they’re singing an old camp song, but what I recognize is that, out of respect for a place and a tradition, they’ve learned to suspend judgment and appreciate something that would in any other setting have been seen as corny, something to be dismissed. In the process each summer of resurrecting this extraordinary community, these three hundred or so kids become bigger human beings.
And so do the rest of us. Few leave these two brother-sister camps—Forest and Indian Acres—untouched. It’s different up there. I’m different up there. In that climate of leisure, whimsy, vigorous activity, and boundless affection, I became a bigger human being, too – more generous, more patient, more present. In between the middle of June and the middle of August for those summers that I am able to get to camp, my heart swells to twice its size, and I become, once again, my best self. This is why I go to summer camp.