They walk along wooded dirt paths with cozy mugs of coffee in their hands, offering lazy smiles and a relaxed “good morning” to everyone they pass. Teens and college students, they wear comfortable clothes, shorts and T-shirts, old sneakers or Birkenstocks, light dresses and beaded necklaces. They’re unselfconscious and easy with each other; at the end of the day, they line up and massage each other’s shoulders.
My 5-year-old son attended an old-fashioned, rustic Maine summer camp as a day camper in July, and seeing the counselors in action jolted me back in time.
When people talk about their memories of Jewish summer camp, I’m always slightly at sea, because I didn’t go to one of those. But I did spend several summers dodging tree roots and practicing my swimming strokes in the lake at an overnight girls’ camp in Maine, where my family is from.
As I got older, I spent my Maine summers taking sailing and photography classes, volunteering on political campaigns and hanging out with friends. And during those summers, many of the people I met were of the same breed as my son’s summer camp counselors: laid back, unpretentious, comfortable in the outdoors and in their own skin.
I was pleased with the camp I had picked out for Nate. So many kids’ camps now are highly specialized — robotics, Legos, rainforest-themed arts and crafts (the last is an actual camp that Nate attended last summer in San Francisco). At this one, the theme is just being at camp.
One foggy morning, I walked Nate to Pine Cone, the two-room battered cabin that is home base for the youngest campers. At this time of day, the kids usually play on the field in front of the cabin, but the chill had pushed them inside. When I walked in, music was on and the children were crowded in one room, sitting on top of a big canvas blanket (which had been signed by generations of campers before) and playing board games.
It was my childhood before me, visceral, tactile, sensory. The kids spent most of their days exploring the outdoors, searching for frogs and tadpoles and swimming in the river. It was perfect.
Except Nate didn’t want to go. He told me so every day and counted down how many days of his one-week session were left. Nate’s been through a lot of big changes recently: Our family has moved twice in the last year, and he’s had to switch schools and make new friends. We’ve just settled in Brooklyn, New York, which will be our permanent home, and where he will attend elementary school, but we’re spending a large part of the summer with his grandparents in Maine.
He didn’t know any kids at camp, and he’s slow to warm up and make friends in group settings. Though he admitted that he had fun playing “Drip, Drip, Drop” (duck, duck, goose) in the river, he said the camp day was too long and he missed me. He whined, he cried, he begged: “I don’t want to go to camp!”
I worried a lot about Nate’s reluctance. I think he was probably enjoying many of the activities, but on the whole, he would rather have been at home than in an unfamiliar setting. My mom urged me not to let his complaints bother me — it was good for him to be around kids his own age, and he surely was having a good time once I dropped him off. I understood her to mean that taking the feelings he expressed too seriously would be indulging him.
I thought about my first summer at sleepaway camp, when I was 8. I was horribly homesick, and I cried every day of the four weeks I was there. Even though I wrote my parents letters telling them how I felt, I don’t think they really knew what the experience was like for me. It’s an experience I would never want my children to have. While their feelings won’t determine the choices their father and I make for them, we take them seriously and regard them as important indicators.
Nate finished his week of camp, but what I have been afraid to tell him is that he is enrolled for another week later in the summer. Given his feelings, my husband and I are undecided as to whether we will send him.
Still, even though Nate is reluctant camper at the moment, those happy, laconic counselors make me excited for his future. It’s been years since I’ve been at camp, and sometimes when you’re away from something for so long, you forget that it exists at all. But walking those dirt paths reminded me that it’s still there, with all its vitality, youth and careworn fun.
And the important thing is not that Nate will like being a camper someday, but that one day, inevitably, he’ll be like one of those counselors. He’ll be a teenager and a young adult; he’ll have the confidence to wear threadbare clothes and participate in group shoulder massages. It’s both incredibly cheesy and incredibly important. He’ll grow up and the world will be his.