By Aaron Selkow, CLC Owner/Director
In her book, A Manufactured Wilderness, Abigail A. Van Slyck refers to summer camps as, “ …a central feature of North American life – for the children who attend them, for the adults who work at them, and even for the former campers of all ages who cherish vivid (if not exclusively pleasant) memories of their camp experiences.” Van Slyck’s examination provides many other insights into how camps became such a valued and dynamic asset to the American experience, but at a time when we watch the summer come to a close after most camps (including Chestnut Lake) were unable to operate for the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 crisis, I underlined this sentence while searching for some inspiration.
My memories of camp – as a child tugging at the leg of my parents to let me stay, as a camper for ten summers, as a young adult staff member for four seasons, and as a camp professional for more than 25 years and counting – are vivid, and as Van Slyck suggests parenthetically, they are not exclusively pleasant. As a young child, I made a friend that is still the person I turn to when I need to laugh. In subsequent summers, I would arrive as an only child to find my brothers waiting for me at camp; ten months apart without so much as a call could do nothing to dim the powerful glow of positive energy, shared exploration, and reinforcement that we offered each other. I found my first crush at camp, stumbled through my first kiss on the bridge after a dance, and learned to make a fire. Of course, I also had other experiences in my youth at camp that counter-balanced those idyllic ones. I upset other campers by excluding them from our inner circle. I told untruths to counselors to get out of trouble, and I flexed my ego in ways that have led to a lifetime search for more self-awareness and humility. And while I may have learned to build a fire – once even starting it with a homemade bow drill – I also threw caterpillars in a few. And once, after an overnight trip with my own campers as their beloved role model and counselor, I was the one that encouraged us all to throw eggs from the van while I stood atop the moving vehicle. When we returned to camp, a phone call from a civilian with great vision and a pencil landed our group in a conversation with the camp’s director. He threatened to send the kids home if they didn’t confess, and he meant it. As my co-counselor and I watched our boys stand up to the pressure being asserted by a man who once served as a translator in a Japanese POW camp, we felt pride to see them protecting us. Later that day, however, we cracked. As we walked to the director’s house – certain we would be sent from our summer home – we felt the weight of our poor decisions and anticipated the course of our lives veering towards a much darker and lonelier place. I have wondered for years what might have been different had we actually been fired that day. He must have somehow known that the second chance afforded us as 18 year-olds would contribute to our rehabilitation into upstanding adults, professionals, spouses, and parents.
That was not a high point in my counselor career, though it taught me a valuable lesson. Better memories were formed and more lessons learned when I bonded with children that continue to reach out to me today to share good news and tough times because we trust and respect each other. In my first summer as a counselor in 1987, I was shifted to live with a group of 14-year-olds at my ripe-old-age of 17 and – for the first time – allowed myself to be truly vulnerable. When I said goodbye to them, I let tears flow freely. For all of the years since then, I’ve become more aware and protective of the need for being real, allow my emotions to show, and provide a counterpoint to the toxic masculinity that can be absorbed by kids when they’re so impressionable. When my role shifted to leadership in the summer, I suddenly understood that camp was not only just for me any longer – I was there to serve others and my job was to be a protective factor that could help the next generation of campers make their own memories in an environment that was safe: safe for them to try new things, to be open to new people, to fail forward, and to be given second chances to discover the best versions of themselves that were somewhere amidst the woods, lakes, cabins, dining halls, and other architecture of these intentionally-constructed, but still simple, environments.
Now fast-forward to the summer of 2020 and a virus has ruined these kinds of experiences for too many of our children.
There are camps that ran this summer despite the restrictions and hurdles of COVID-19, but not enough to serve the needs and desires of all children, young adults, and parents across North America who want the memories due to them this year. Those camps did so at great risks and costs, while others – like Chestnut Lake Camp – made their own decisions to shutter for the season to protect our campers and staff from those very same risks. Each camp needed to assess the massive complexities of this moment and be true to their mission and character, as our leaders did at Chestnut Lake. Never before was the very existence of summer camps threatened in this way; no time before forced the passionate and dynamic leaders of camps to make the choice of camp or no camp for families.
The advent of technology and a digital age that has altered how our children learn and connect to others, the greater risks of liability and security that plague society, the high costs of operating immersive programs, and even the destruction of nature and resources could not keep camps from opening before 2020. Camps and camp leaders adapted, innovated, and worked their way through contemporary challenges to ensure that another generation of children could discover themselves and each other at camp. While the pandemic outbreak we continue to navigate may have stolen the opportunities for countless campers, staff, parents, alumni, and other stakeholders to create new, vivid memories at camp in 2020, the very existence of this extraordinary catastrophe has become an opportunity for a true camp memory to form.
In years from now, our children will remember the summer that was lost to COVID-19. Some children and adults will actually look back at this summer as one where they felt like a Trailblazer if they happen to be at one of the camps that has found a pathway through the logistics, limitations, bureaucracy, and understandable concerns to operate in chaos. There will be memories therein for a relatively small group of children that will be able to look back on being among the first to wear a mask at Color War, to have temperature checks become as common as water breaks, and to submit COVID test results as a means of admission to their Happy Place. But it’s as much a memory for the exponentially greater number of people who have had to adjust to a summer without – what greater story of resiliency have we ever had than the need to cope with a summer of camp denied?
Simon Sinek – in Together is Better – suggests that, “Our struggles are short-term steps we must take on our way to long-term success.” The story of summer camp – whether one written by a researcher like Van Slyck or as part of a personal narrative – has always been replete with memories of joy as well as struggle. Friendships and broken hearts, successes and failures, and dreams realized and shattered all dot the scatter plots of experiences for camp people. The summer of 2020 should be that short-term, kick-in-the-teeth moment that can lead to even more special long-term success. This is our perfect chance to become stronger, smarter, and more creative. We tend to like the tales of comebacks and rebounds from adverse conditions because they inspire us to believe that things can get better, and that problems can be fixed. This should be a Comeback Story for the ages.
Right now, there are many broken aspects of our lives that are impacting the way that young people will someday grow into older people. Van Slyck describes summer camps as, “fertile sites for examining a constellation of concerns that have informed – that continue to inform – conceptions of modern childhood.” Let this season of missed memories inform conceptions for our children – and for all of us that continue to have a childish spirit that was shaped at summer camp – to help them to be more resistant and strong as they count down the days to their next summer at camp. Until then, let us appreciate the camp memories that are present now. And let’s continue our countdown towards the summer of 2021, when we reopen to families and staff never before more ready to celebrate the very existence of our society’s greatest antidote to a widespread viral threat: summer camp.