I was ten years old, going into the fifth grade, for my first summer at sleepaway camp. My father, himself a camp veteran and enthusiast, had researched several camps throughout New England, spoken with directors, and shown me informational videos until it was finally decided. I would attend a very traditional, non-competitive, all-girls sleepaway camp in New Hampshire’s White Mountains: Camp Waukeela.
I remember my first day. We arrived at camp after four long, apprehensive hours in the car—truthfully, with much more anxiety than excitement. I had no idea on that first day that this place would become my summer home for the next 11 years. We pulled up to the small, secluded camp cloaked in pine trees to be greeted by a friendly herd of campers and counselors old and new. In the midst of reunions and introductions, faces and places that would later become so familiar, I wandered through Junior Alley and found my new address, Cabin 14. My parents helped me unload my heavy trunk and briefly met the counselor with whom my life was entrusted for four weeks. I remember wearing my new comically oversized green and white uniform, holding my counselor’s hand, as they waved goodbye and I held back my tears before turning into the dining hall. Grilled cheese and tomato soup was for lunch, the first meal of every summer.
Much to my parents’ relief (or perhaps to their dismay), those tears were the only ones I ever came close to shedding over homesickness. Within minutes, maybe seconds, I was laughing with the other girls, wide-eyed as I listened to the camp songs echoing through the dining hall—the first of hundreds, to which I still know every word. Ultimately, the tears I would go on to shed at camp were always at the end of the summer, at the heartbreak of leaving the friends and community I had come to love.
And then the year would slowly crawl by as I waited for that next first day of camp. During earlier years, I would make a “countdown chain” from stapled strips of green and white construction paper. I exchanged letters with camp pen pals; tirelessly practiced the songs; traded tales of the summer with my friends at home, even though they could never understand; and diligently tore off a paper circle with each passing day as camp approached.
My zeal for Waukeela summers proved contagious to my sisters, Emily and Julie, who attended as soon as they were old enough. I loved having my sisters at camp. I relished our shared identity as “the Greene sisters” and our reputation for being die-hard campers. We’d go for the whole eight weeks instead of four. We’d sign up for the optional hiking and canoeing trips. Emily was a star swimmer, and Julie the Green Team captain in the camp-wide color war. Julie adopted the hilarious role of camp bugler, responsible for marking the beginning and end of each day, announcing meals, and adorably bellowing through the five-minute daily flag raising as she gasped for air. Today, we share the distinction of having spent a combined 28 summers at Waukeela.
I remember Julie’s daily announcements reminding everyone of her missing rain boot, which was hard to forget because she insisted on wearing the boot she still had on one foot and a sandal on the other. (The boot, of course, turned out to be under her bed.) I remember Emily’s renditions of “Emilicious,” her personal anthem adapted from Fergie’s ever-popular “Fergalicious.” I remember when Julie and her friend pretended to be a couple named Julio and Juliette and remained in full character for days.
I too had plentiful opportunities to look and act ridiculous. On multiple occasions I impersonated—in dress and in song—Lance Bass of ‘N Sync. During later summers, I foolishly allowed my campers to style my hair and proceeded to walk around with a Princess Leia hairdo for hours, a fashion statement I never thought I’d make. I took part in a terribly clumsy albeit choreographed performance to “The Sound of Music” theme song, which ended in laughter to the point of tears. I was called upon in the dining hall to demonstrate “the worm,” which, owing to a disgraceful lack of coordination, more successfully imitated a flailing fish out of water.
Of course, such ludicrous displays were neither peculiar to me nor my sisters. Unlike home, camp is a place where being outgoing comes naturally. It’s the place to embrace being goofy. While I was always painfully shy in school, I was able break out of my shell at camp. The deep sense of comfort and belonging felt by campers is comparable to the immutable, unbreakable bonds of family. It may sound trite, but these strong, lasting friendships foster the confidence and self-esteem in campers to come into their own and be their true selves.
In my opinion, however, the ideal of the confident, carefree, well-adjusted camper may be unique to single-sex camps. I found it liberating to escape the social pressures and the real or imagined scrutiny so often felt at co-ed schools like my own. At camp, no one bothers to wear makeup; and with green and white uniforms, there’s only so much you can do to look fashionable. For a rare moment, our preoccupations with appearances, and with what others think, were alleviated.
Camp also offers a haven from the stifling physical monotony of urban and suburban living. Above us, pine trees scrape the sky; below, we walk a road of rocks and roots. We hear no truck engines or honking horns, only the quiet song of lonesome crickets and loons on the lake. A single incandescent light bulb and spotty flashlights illuminate the walls of wooden cabins, all littered with graffiti of signatures from years past. Instead of e-mail, we take pen to paper and practice the dying art of letter writing. (But it’s not uncommon for parents to experience prolonged lapses in communication from their camper, or the letters they do receive are comically vague and to the point—there’s just too much other exciting stuff to do.)
This charmingly quaint lifestyle still manages to offer an excess of fantastic activities. At Waukeela, children of all levels swim in the crystal-clear lake; they sing songs, dance dances, and act in plays; they sail, windsurf, kayak, and canoe to a small sandbar called Little Africa; they ride horses; they use their hands to make mugs in pottery and costumes in textiles; they play tennis and soccer, riflery and archery; they surmount the ropes course challenges and scream as they fly down the zipline.
My camp also presented numerous occasions for travel. I was fortunate enough to have service opportunities both in the local community and even abroad. Camp brought me from New Hampshire’s White Mountains to Nicaragua’s city streets; it took me into the cockpit of a tiny float airplane to the rivers of Northern Quebec on a three-week whitewater canoeing trip; and with campers and counselors representing countless countries across the globe, camp continues to bring me hundreds of miles away to reunite with old friends.
Having enjoyed being a camper as much as I did, I always hoped that I would one day be a counselor. Instead of experiencing the magic, I became a part of the team making it happen.
As mentors and supervisors, counselors are tasked with modeling the good nature, enthusiasm, and decorum that they wish their campers to emulate, as they attend to their well-being. Secondarily, counselors try to engage campers as friends by being silly and lighthearted. I learned valuable lessons in the process of testing these waters—the critical distinction between being liked and respected, the efficacy of “if…then” statements (“if you do not keep your voices down, then we will have complete cabin silence”), and the hazards of overstimulating campers with too much excitement.
One thing that surprised me in becoming a counselor was the extent of the communication among staff. You might think that the more timid of campers could get lost in the shuffle, but with a small camper-to-counselor ratio, there is always a close eye looking on every child. As a case in point, at Waukeela, every week counselors write a personalized, handwritten letter to the parents of each kid in their cabin with a detailed description of her recent activities and psychological states. As a camper, I believed my friends and I existed in our own invisible world as we stealthily snuck between cabins at night, indulging in the clandestine candy stash of one self-sacrificing camper—but oh how I was wrong! Little did I know that every detail, every movement is reported daily up the chain of command, so senior staff are always impossibly well informed on the status of each child. If a camper slept too much, smiled too little, or did not sing enough during a meal, it did not go unnoticed.
But what I found most rewarding as a counselor was bearing witness to the magic—the palpable sense of imagination in playing, when kids remember how to simply be kids. Girls painted their nails and French-braided each other’s hair. They played “Drip, Drip, Drench” when the summer was hot and mud-slided on rainy days. A lucky handful of older campers lived elevated 20 feet above ground in a bona fide treehouse. Water balloons were tossed; squirt gun warfare broke out between rival factions in Junior and Senior Alley. The can was kicked; the flag captured; the hiders found by the seekers.
After all, if not at summer camp, where else is there such a place wholly dedicated to embracing the fun, curiosity, and creativity of children? In a world where digital games and technology have, to a large extent, taken the place of make-believe and invention, camp has and will continue its age-old tradition of captivating children through simple ideas. Never have I seen kids so entertained by the folklore of hopeful whale-watching on a large pond we call a lake; enchanted during special camp holidays like Harry Potter or Wizard of Oz Day; or earnestly inquisitive about the identity of a mythical creature named Snoopy, who inspects cabins for cleanliness without ever being seen.
And this simpler, unadulterated form of play encapsulates the timelessness that is camp. As the world around us rapidly changes, camp remains the unshakable rock that grounds us. Since Waukeela’s founding in 1921, scores of panorama pictures documenting each summer line the walls of the dining hall, where new ones are added each year. A daughter finds her mother’s image in a black-and-white photo or her name scribbled amidst the webbed signage of generations past. Today, girls dream of their own daughters wearing green and white, singing the same songs and walking the same rocks and roots; sharing the same smiles and tears, secrets and memories; chasing possibilities and thirsting for adventure. This long legacy of tradition simultaneously evokes a nostalgia for a time lost to history and a satisfying knowledge that our time, too, will one day be yearned for.
To find a camp near you, go to newyorkfamilycamps.com