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.
I’ve always said that a day at camp is like two weeks in real life. Every emotion, friendship, and romantic feeling is amplified. On those campgrounds, an extraordinary, emotional magic takes place. Some of my most vivid and fondest memories are of my days at camp. And those memories are the foundation of so much continued joy. The relationships are carried over into the real world, strengthened and forged by the bonds of camp, so that even now, as an adult, some of my dearest friends are those I met 30 years ago. So to think that thousands of kids won’t get to have their moments this summer is a difficult thing to wrap my head around.
Camps of all kinds—day, overnight, sports, etc.—have postponed opening day or been canceled altogether. And for camp people, when camp goes, so goes the summer.
For those who can still attend, it’ll feel a little strange. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has its guidelines on how camps can execute a safe summer-camp experience. The American Camp Association has its own. So does each state and each camp. Some suggestions include a no-in, no-out policy, which eliminates those beloved trips into the real world for bowling, visits to state parks, and the viciously competitive basketball or soccer games against a rival camp. That rule also means the staff can’t enjoy nights out at the local bar or days off unwinding in the nearest big town or beach. Social-distancing requirements mean bunk beds might be a no-no, removing the exhilaration of sleeping five and a half feet up on a narrow cot with the risk of rolling off and crashing onto the cabin floor. And what is a campfire like when you have to be six feet apart? If kids can’t throw their arms around one another during campfire sing-alongs, what’s the point?
In these circumstances, many parents will choose to keep their kids at home—or have no choice but to keep their kids at home. And they should dampen their expectations too. They simply won’t be able to do for their children all that a camp counselor does. Kids need guidance, love, and inspiration from an adult who isn’t bound to them by blood. A strong camper-counselor friendship does more for a kid’s confidence than any amount of praise from Mom or Dad.
Camp is an escape—from the everyday, from the routines imposed by parental figures and school administrators. It’s a place that teaches us to cope with stress and adversity. Camp helped me accept myself—and others.
This strange summer will stand out as the one with the masks and the advice to keep a safe distance from best friends, that time when we pined wistfully for camp food, the smell of the lake, and the adventures only youthful independence in the woods can provide.