In the beginning, camps and I did not get along.
In fact, I was a day-camp drop-out. Being away from my parents was hard for me – much harder than it was for other kids my age – and I was too scared and shy and stressed to entertain the idea that camp could be fun. I had become a serial camp-quitter, and this camp, a Jewish performing arts one, was my parent’s last attempt at changing things.
Soon, it was time for my Dad to leave. Just when I got teary, I heard my name. “Come sit with me!” a counselor called.
Less than a minute into music class, I told her I really needed to go home, that I just couldn’t make it through the entire day. I had been to enough camps to know what would happen next, I thought. She’d tell me there was no way I could go home, that I should just have fun, that there was nothing to be scared of or sad about. Instead, she said she had an idea.
First days are scary, she told me, so maybe if I could stop thinking about the whole, big day, and instead just tried to get through the next five minutes the day wouldn’t be as bad. It didn’t even have to be fun yet, she said. “We’re just going to see what five minutes at camp feels like, and we can do it together.”
So, I took it five minutes at a time until the end of music class, five minutes at a time until lunch, five minutes at a time until I had made it to the end of the day. Then, I stayed for the next sixteen years.
In that one moment of connection, a teenaged counselor helped a seven-year-old me manage separation anxiety so large my parents, teachers, and doctors had trouble helping me with it. Over the next sixteen summers, as both a camper and a staff person, I discovered that camp is profoundly transformative; my summers shaped me in ways that my experiences at school and at home couldn’t.
At camp, learning sneaks up on you. It’s there when you least expect it, while you’re busy making a dance with your friends or writing a skit; in those moments you’re learning to be more empathetic, to be brave, to trust yourself. Outside of the confines of a classroom, I learned teamwork from obstacle courses and scavenger hunts, empathy from counselors who took the time to serve as conflict mediators, and patience from a camp director who saw the best in every single child. Years later, on staff, I knew that as we planned Color War and told silly made-up stories and facilitated improv games, we were helping teach collaboration, confidence, and creativity.
The kind of learning that happens at camp is a kind of learning that doesn’t include rubrics or report cards or parent-teacher conferences. There’s no set curriculum, so there’s no rush. The camp environment — without grades or evaluations — allowed me to conquer my fears at my own pace. I never felt rushed or watched and ultimately this was the reason why I did things I had never dreamed I would. Camp is where I had my first successful sleepover (thanks to the camp director who stayed up and told me stories) and conquered stage fright, and it’s where I’ve seen children put their faces in the water for the first time and overcome their own fears.
During the summer, the counselors were the role models. These teenagers and twenty-somethings who wore crazy costumes, performed bizarre improv skits, and sang as they walked us from activity to activity were our beloved heroes. They were a cross between guide and friend, a combination of which helped us navigate friendship crises, taught us to be goofy and brave and enthusiastic.
This summer will be my first away from camp since I started all those years ago. I’m having trouble conceiving of a summer that doesn’t include bus-rides to the pool and impromptu sing-a-longs. Last week, as I signed my first lease in a new city and had my first full week at a new job, I felt a lot like that seven-year-old clinging to her Dad on the first day of something unknown. Thankfully, I’m armed with a lifetime of camp lessons that remind me I can start by taking things five minutes at a time.
COVER IMAGE COURTESY OF SHUTTERSTOCK.