(Our Family in Tanzania)
(Our Family in Tanzania)
I came to the summer camp experience late in life.
Today we have a special treat - Susie Ma'am is our guest blogger!
A week ago, I posted an article about “disruptive moments” and how they we can use them to help campers grow and improve their personal stories (I called them “personal narratives” in the article).
I was driving my thirteen-year-old daughter, Virginia, in the car yesterday. For those of you who have children older than the Barney the Dinosaur years, you know that you’ve lost your ability to choose the type of music played in the car. You’ll get your choice back when your kids are old enough to drive – but this will no longer be relevant because then you’ll lose your car to the same children. Virginia is my youngest of four, so I’m familiar with this event.
I was never a camper as a child. While some of my friends went to camp, I found their long and exciting conversations about their summers in Maine and upstate New York (I grew up in the Boston area) hard to follow. I could tell that something special had happened for them, but I just did not “get it”.
I was never a summer camp counselor. I worked with children, but my experiences were with at-risk teens (at a psych ward) and children with cancer (at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute).
I had graduated from the University of Michigan, worked for 3 years and entered Kellogg Business School before I set foot on my first camp property.
I married into camp. A former investment banker, Steve and his brother were building a new summer camp on a beautiful lake in Texas near the town of Marble Falls. And after graduating from Harvard Business School, he planned to make “summer camping” his career. We started dating while he was in Boston. I knew early on that I was not just dating a guy, but also a Texan and a camp-nut. As I started to think about our being together permanently, I knew that camp was part of the deal.
At the time, it was odd. I saw the excitement and passion of all the full time camp team, but did not understand. I worked with the camp, but primarily in the back office as a bookkeeper/administrator. With my graduate degree specializing in health care management, I assumed that I would end up working in hospital administration or consulting. My time as a camp person was surely nothing more than a short-term stint. Occasionally, a camper would ask me what I did at camp. “Think of me as a pancreas – you are not quite sure what I do, but your are glad you have one.”
Each year, however, I found myself understanding it a bit more. I would get a chance to talk with a camper at a meal and see her eyes light up as she talked about camp: “I can be MYSELF at camp and I LOVE that. I wish I could be like this ALL THE TIME!” (For those of you who speak often to teen-age girls, you understand the need to capitalize the key words.) I would watch as campers hugged their parents at closing, as if they never wanted to be parted again only to exclaim “I’m coming back next year”!
As time passed, I started to see and feel the magic of camp. I attended 2-3 national and regional conferences annually on camp. I would listen to Steve passionately espouse the power of the away-from-home, community experience. And I kept seeing the campers grow. After hours of conversation and observation, I found myself enthusiastically buying into our Mission Statement: “to help every camper grow into the Champion God intends him or her to be.”
My education was coming along nicely.
The summer of 2005 was the final watershed. Our three oldest children (twin boys daughter who were 8 and 7 at the time) went to camp for the first time. Sending them had been harder than I had suspected it would be. I was reminded of my mother (a former Lamaze instructor) being shocked at the pain of childbirth. Despite my understanding of camp, letting go had been hard, but worth it as they returned home so happy and with so many new skills that I was awed. Their newly acquired talents are more than an improved tennis backhand and an ability to water-ski, but extend to making their own beds, being responsible for their belongings, and, best of all, having the confidence to meet new people and prosper in whatever situation might arise.
I should have seen the effect of camp three years earlier. The evidence was there. When the boys were only 5 (11 years ago!?!?), they befriended a large number of campers during our first session of camp. The session ended on a Saturday and the following session began the following Sunday. That morning, Liam shot out our door like a cannon. “Where are you going?” we asked.
“I am going to see my friends.”
“But Liam, your friends left yesterday, these are new campers.”
“I know Mommy. I am going to see the friends I haven’t met yet!”
Camp continues to be a huge part of our parenting strategy. Each of our children will attending Camp Champions as well as another out-of-state camp. We want them to have an experience that is truly away from home. One of the boys (now 16) will spend 6 weeks in Costa Rica while the other will go 4 weeks to a language immersion camp in Minnesota. Our older daughter will spend 4 weeks in Chicago at debate camp. Our youngest will spend a month in North Carolina.
I know see my role at camp as crystal clear. I am here to share my lessons with other parents. I want them to understand the unique growth opportunities of camp. I also want to help them deal with the challenges of separating from their children.
As I think over my decade-plus in summer camping, I am reminded of George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life. In this classic film, George Bailey finds himself longing for a life more exciting than that offered running a savings and loan in small Bedford Falls, but soon learns that he is exactly where he can make the greatest difference in the world. He is only able to see this truth with the help of a child-like angel.
Just as George never left Bedford Falls, I never left Marble Falls. Unlike him, I had more than one child-like angel to help me see the significance and importance of my work here.
Sunday nights are my favorite nights at camp. The first Sunday of each term, I give a vespers talk. (The second Sunday night belongs to the girls of 7-11 when they read their “love letters about camp” to the girls’ side.)
I try to choose topics accessible to all age groups. Tonight I spoke about “being misjudged”. My main point was this – if a person feels misjudged, then she must live her life to prove the accusation wrong. Other people’s perceptions might be false, but they are important information nonetheless. A wise girl asks herself why others misjudge her and decides if it’s worth changing her attitude or actions.
I shared a story from my freshman year of high school. I was a fairly shy, not terribly confident freshman. Like many tremulous teens, I sought the company of the most social and prominent students assuming their friendship would provide me validation. My faulty choice in friends combined with my natural reticence had me labeled a snob. The fact that I felt minimal connection with this crowd, perhaps, furthered my vulnerability. When a friend accused me of being aloof, I was deeply hurt, defensive and somewhat bewildered. Heck, I didn’t feel I had anything to be snobbish about.
I shared my struggles with my parents. I have a wonderfully pragmatic Yankee father. The “Get over it. Life is not a piece of cake” kind. Rather than console me, both my parents encouraged introspection. What perception had I created that people would think this of me? Did it bother me enough to change it? While I shared the details with the campers of how I successfully changed my image in high school, I’ll simply tell you that by the end of my freshman year I had a new group of friends (no surprise) and felt happy and accepted. My snob reputation declined as I strived to be a friendlier and more engaging person. To this day, I still have to cultivate my own extroversion. I’m envious of people like Craw Ma’am and Garcia Ma’am whose extroversion is effortless.
Many times I reiterated this point to the girls: no one can keep you down but yourself. I couldn’t depend on the interest of the general freshman class to get to know me well enough to see my shyness. I was the one responsible for changing their view of me. I was keeping myself down. Whether or not I felt that I had been misjudged was irrelevant. I was the only one who could fix the situation.
The vespers speech also included the topic of misjudging others. My high school experience had taught me not to judge others quickly as I myself had been judged.
After I gave my speech, I asked for the girls to share their own stories. At least fifty hands popped up immediately and more kept coming. (I am not exaggerating) The minis chose to relate this story to camp. Many shared their fears of the Glob, the Climbing Wall, Waterskiing etc. They all resolved to overcome their physical fears.
The evening got a little more interesting when girls shared struggles with cabin dynamics. They’d been impatient or intolerant with cabin-mates. One admitted she could be bossy, another’s disorganization was impeding cabin clean up. Another said that her cabin has misjudged her as mean and rather than stay angry at them, she publically pledged to prove them wrong through her kindness.
I was even more thrilled when some girls admitted their tendency to judge others too quickly, to be superficial and to let others’ opinions influence their own.
Many girls pledged to make the rest of their lives as good as camp. Camp creates such a feeling of support, love and possibilities, campers feel confident and open. But when they get back home, that confidence diminishes. I constantly challenge campers to note the qualities they love about themselves while they are here at camp and then bring those qualities back “to the outside world”.
Finally, the really good stuff. I occasionally tear up when I listen to my wonderful girls show their maturity and insight. (I’m such a softy and they all tease me for it, which I love.) So tonight I choked up when one first year camper admitted that she’d been unfair to her stepfather as she blamed him for not being her dad. She had misjudged him and resolved to be more accepting and to make it her responsibility to improve their relationship. Another said that her family was moving to a new town and that she and her brothers had made life intentionally difficult for her parents and that they deserved better.
When I hear these confessions, I am so proud of my campers I can’t stand it. It’s hard enough to admit our shortfalls to ourselves. But to admit them to the entire girls’ side and then hear the murmurs of support and “snaps” from their peers is tremendously powerful and affirming. I can’t wait to follow up in the days to come and hear about the successes these girls are going to have at camp and in their lives.
I love your daughters!