By: Claire Solomon
People usually assume that I’m a “Lifer”— that I spent countless summers at the same summer camp. I don’t know if it’s because I am usually willing to make a spectacle of myself, or because one of my favorite activities happens to be off-key communal singing, or all of the above, but I can’t tell you how many times I have been misidentified as a kid who lived and breathed my camp. When I explain to people that I bounced around a few camps for a variety of reasons, they always look a bit puzzled. As if, now, they can’t totally figure me out. Mine is not a story of one camp, but a story of many camps.
The summer before 4th grade I hopped on a bus from Evanston, Illinois, to Fremont, Michigan, with almost every friend I had. We were going to “First Timers,” the brainchild of a YMCA camp, where we would spend a few days away from our parents acclimating to sleep-away camp. I don’t remember much, other than the confusion that arose after I came home and announced that God was “Nine” and not the “One” that I was taught in Hebrew School (“nigh” is really a confusing word for a fourth grader to comprehend, but “Taps” really is an important song). I do remember that it felt like an extension of home, especially when an older counselor came into our cabin to sing Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” to us as we went to sleep. I remember looking around and seeing all of my friends. I remember feeling safe.
The next summer I went back to camp, and it was just as wonderful as the summer before. But the end of that last session, my family moved from Evanston to Merion, Pennsylvania. I skipped going to camp the summer after the move, and instead went on a tour of the Northwest with my grandma through an organization called “Grandtravel” (which exactly what it sounds like—Grandparents. Grandchildren. Travel. That experience is one for another blog post). But I missed camp and my old friends, and so that next summer, the summer after 6th grade, I hopped on a plane not to LAX but to O’Hare, got driven to the bus by family friends, and reunited with my old friends. I distinctly remember clutching the yearbook from my new school, trying in some way to affirm that I was cool and popular, and pointing to pages that boys had signed to solidify my position in the fictitious social totem pole. But there were new kids, from new middle schools, and I couldn’t figure out how to fit in. I didn’t feel at home that summer, and I didn’t want to go back again.
The next few summers were a whirlwind of camps. I spent one summer at a top performing arts camp for aspiring musicians, artists, and performers that my mom had attended in high school. This camp was both intense and magical. We wore uniforms (white or blue shirts, blue shorts or knickers—yes, knickers—and socks whose color corresponded to your age group), spent hours in practice rooms and studios, and followed a fairly rigorous schedule of core classes and electives. The magic could be found in the music that lived around us, in the level of professionalism that permeated the entire campground, and in the landscape of Northern Michigan. I spent another summer at Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development, learning about community engagement, exploring Chicago, and making friends from all over the country. I learned about self-reflection, about community organizing, and about the miracles that are French toast sticks in college cafeterias. That was the last summer that I formally attended camp.
The educator and/or camp counselor in you is probably asking, “What are the takeways? What did you learn?” I learned how to toast a marshmallow, how to sing by myself in front of a large audience, and how to prepare meals in a soup kitchen. I unsuccessfully attempted to French-braid my hair, but I semi-successfully conquered a few chords of jazz piano, and I attended a Chicago city council meeting. I solidified relationships with old friends, and also met kids from across the country and across the world, kids who are now prominent poets and artists and educators.
For me camp wasn’t one physical place. It was a collection of experiences that enabled me to grow and to change and to feel both safe and challenged. It’s one of the reasons I started singing in chorus, one of the reasons I learned how to play the guitar, and one of the reasons why I became a passionate reader and writer and volunteer. Mine is not a story of one camp, but a story of many camps. And as the seasons go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down, camp is a story that I believe in and I hope you will or already do too.