I fought my parents with everything I had when I was 11 years old but they insisted on sending me to overnight camp for eight weeks. It was 1990, and the 17-year cicadas were out in full force. My suburban Chicago neighborhood was a screaming bug cloud, and I hated the idea of being sent into the Michigan woods, where there’d likely be even more insects. I had tried a different overnight camp the previous summer and had loathed almost every minute of it. To top it off, Mom and Dad were sending me to a place I’d seen only in photos on a slide projector; I’d know no one. The weeks leading up to opening day filled me with dread.
Turns out, shipping me off to summer camp against my will was the best thing my parents ever did for me. I loved it. I returned every summer as a camper, then as a counselor. Now, in my 40s, I still go back. I’m one of those camp people. The fact that so many kids and staff are missing out on camp right now because of the coronavirus pandemic is devastating.
In those Michigan woods on the lake, I learned to sail, shoot a rifle, and build a fire. I also realized that I could take care of myself without my parents. I learned social accountability by sharing chores with my cabinmates during cleanup duty in the mess hall. I figured out how to talk with girls by befriending the female counselors. I found out that switching from tighty-whities to boxer shorts improved a boy’s social standing. (Thanks, Mom, for sending that care package.) I nearly mastered the art of finding mischief and avoiding punishment. I gained the ability to hide in the shadows and walk silently over gravel when sneaking into the girls’ cabins; I threw myself into the transcendent art of writing my name in bug spray on the cabin floor and setting it on fire; I discovered that the best way to ruin breakfast for the entire camp is to sneak into the mess hall and discharge the fire extinguisher, blasting chemicals on every surface. I also discovered that no one else thought that was funny. Oh, but we can all laugh about it now. I learned how to make friends when I knew no one. As a whole, I learned how to be myself, on my own terms.