Sleep Away Camp As Rorschach

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Camp, circa 1967. Future movers and shakers?

hide captionCamp, circa 1967. Future movers and shakers?

Source: Potter/Express/Getty Images

Talking with my fiance the other day, I began to reminisce — fondly — about my days at sleep away camp. (I am convinced I went to the very best camp in the entire world.) He snorted derisively, and gave me an account of his summer Bible camp in rural Kansas (which does not sound like the very best camp in the entire world). I realized that he thinks sleep away camp is elitist — and it does sort of represent an image of middle class happiness, in a sixties-ish sort of way. And he's got a point — the Getty caption of the archival photo above reads, "They may be attending a summer camp run by the National Association for Gifted Children, but these two boys enjoy reading comic books just like other kids their age." But the kids that were shipped off to moldy cabins, mosquito fields, and competitive ping-pong tourneys may have felt anything but special. Timothy Noah, in a thoughtful (and hilarious) piece in Slate, dissected the emotions attached to sleep away camp, and came up with a way to use the experience as a sort of litmus test for the kind of adult you might be. Unfortunately, I might be the kid that liked camp a little too much. See where you fall on his scale.

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I have a story that I would like Timothy Noah to psycho-analyze.

As a kid growing up in the inner-city, I had a great desire to go to summer camp as shown on Nickelodeon's "Solute Your Shorts". My brother and I watched the show together and shared this desire. One year my parents gave in and sent us to camp.

I decided very early in my camp experience that I hated it. I think we chose the wrong camp, my mostly-rural religious camp mates were just not my type. I remember being so upset that I wrote home to my parents telling them that I hated it and wanted to be picked up. I felt guilty for telling my parents that I hated camp and so I erased my original message and wrote a positive, but untruthful one.

At the end of the week when my parents picked my brother and I up, they had concerned looks on their faces. My brother and I later found out that my parents could read the erased message and that both my brother and I had independently written negative messages, erased them, and lied about our times there.

The story always makes me remember how similar my brother and I are, despite the different paths we've taken through this world. I work as a scientist in Michigan and my brother works for a not-for-profit in San Diego developing low-income housing. We've taken different paths, but what did this common camp-experience tell us about what kind of adults we'd be?

Sent by Justin Meyer | 3:26 PM | 8-5-2008

I worked at a camp last summer. I noticed that if my co-staffers had been to other camps, we moderately enjoyed it. If this was a staffer's first great experience, they would go back to college and change their major to Outdoor Recreation, hoping to work at camps forever. I think the more you go to camps, the more moderate you feel towards them.

Sent by T. Garner | 3:51 PM | 8-5-2008

What about the Campers who rely on camp to get away from abusive homes? I worked at a Christian camp for 5 years and most of the kids who loved loved loved camp loved it so much because it allowed them to escape, for just a few days from the situation at home. Some kids so look forward to camp because it can truly make a difference in how kids will turn out.

Sent by Brian | 3:52 PM | 8-5-2008

I think I would definitely fall into the 'Camp Cultists' Category. I attended the same YMCA Camp every summer, located in Silver Falls State Park in Oregon from age 5 to 15, then worked there from 16 to 21. As an only child, those summers and the chances they provided to hang out with other kids (and get away from home) meant so much to me, as did the attention and respect of the cool older counselors.
I would agree that Camp Cultists tend to be successful and active members of the community. I think this is in part because of the pro-social tendencies that camps tend to practice and preach. I am not the head of any major corporations but I do work in the non-profit sector and am involved in my camp's alumni association, and am currently trying to use my work experience to help them apply for some grants to help with the alumni association's gift for camp's upcoming 75th anniversary - a new pool. I am so glad to have the opportunity to give back even a fraction of how much camp has given to me. It has made me the person that I am today.

Sent by Leslie | 4:00 PM | 8-5-2008

The best part of my childhood was two or four weeks at Girl Scout Camp every summer until I could be a CIT (Counselor In Training) and then a counselor after graduating from high school. I continued counseling summers for a number of years and my first real job was as an assistant camp director for a YWCA camp.

As you can guess, I loved camp, the Girl Scouts and learning all the wonderful tricks of living outside and loving the wilderness. I was a pre-title nine young women (also with athletic skills) that only had the opportunity to watch her brother play in Little League. Girl Scouts and Girl Scout Camp gave me the leadership skills that athletics today give young women.

I have just retired from a successful 30 + year career teaching at a university and I truly believe the high goals I set for myself and my perseverance to complete a doctorate was due to my years at scout camp. I also have had wonderful friends throughout my life that I met as a child at camp and I, too, (like the caller that went to Boy Scout camp) still go canoeing up north in the Quetico Provincial Park (Boundary Waters).

I have always maintained that the leaders and higher achievers of this world probably went to sleep-over camp and owned a dog as a child.

Sent by Linda Law | 4:15 PM | 8-5-2008

One thing I didn't get to say before I posted the last comment was that it is poor journalism to only portray the negative side of overnight summer camps. Having worked at summer camps for a long time and seeing firsthand the effects that they have had on the kids that come, makes me a believer in them, not a skeptic. In the future, it may be more prudent to be able to portray both sides of the story, not just the side the guest on the show is arguing for.

Sent by Brian Gauthier | 4:57 PM | 8-5-2008

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