A strange thing happened when I went to pick up my kids from camp. I cried. Not a tear of happiness about the reunion and not a tear of sadness that my days are about to get a lot more demanding as I return to my usual chaotic juggling routine.
Honestly, I wasn’t even sure why I was crying as I watched the boat approach the dock. I was genuinely embarrassed too.
Lots of people were crying when the kids left FOR camp (at which point I was surprisingly fine). I was the only one crying as the boat rolled in. I spent all night thinking about it.
My three older children attended camp on Catalina Island, at Catalina Island Camps just off the California coast. A ferry was chartered, exclusively for the campers. It was, we joked, a little like the train to Hogwarts. All aboard at Dock 9 & 3/4. The teen and tween failed to enjoy our humor. But it was much more epic than the school bus bus that took me from the Paramus Mall parking lot to the Berkshires camp of my youth. I could see through their ruse of jaded ennui. They thought it was kind of cool. They were just pissed off about having to give up their cell phones.
I really pushed my kids to go to camp this summer. They lobbied to stay home. Do nothing. Hang out with friends. I wasn’t biting.
As much as I loved summer camp, I’d be lying if I said I loved every moment of it. There were a fair share of bunk dramas, scandals and heartache over the several summers I attended. I was challenged on a regular basis. One summer I always seemed to have a stomach ache. It was a mystery to me and a nuisance to the nurse who placated me with little plastic cups of chalky Maalox and tuts and mumblings of “hypochondriac”. I didn’t want to let it slow me down so I continued to cartwheel through the pain until my appendix burst on the end-of-summer camp field trip to a Six Flags amusement park. It happened on the Log Flume.
The Log Flume was supposed to be the practice run for the big roller coaster at the park. I was so determined to face my fear of roller coasters, once and for all. I had sworn a solemn oath with my bunkmates not to let me chicken out. My determination was ridiculous, but touching. The sort of thing that I’d never have mustered with my at-home friends. I remember laying on a park bench, in agony, getting up and trying to walk towards that roller coaster. I made it about five steps before collapsing. So close… no dice.
Instead I got to ride in an ambulance, lights flashing, accompanied by the hottest male counselor on staff. A whole different kind of thrill ride. I was the ironic envy of all, if you can envy an 11 year old with a burst appendix, in need of emergency surgery without a parent in sight, accompanied by an equally terrified 20 year old.
I was the first one on that roller coaster the following summer. Despite the mishaps and medical emergencies, I loved camp.
What I loved most about it was who *I* was, when I was there.
Camp was a chance to reinvent myself and break free of the accumulated every day assumptions about me that were plentiful, even at the unripened age of 8. The assumptions I challenged were as much my own as other people’s.
Camp shook up my sense of self in the best way possible. At camp it turned out that I wasn’t a non-athlete, a geek or a “JAP” as had been suggested to me on more than one occasion.
I was a girl who rode horses bareback, did back handsprings on the high beam, water skied, threw clods of dirt in a mud fight and wanted to ride a roller coaster with burst appendix. I was fierce.
This definition of myself was renewed and filed away summer after summer. It sticks to this day.
When my son expressed apprehension and my girls fought back about attending summer camp, I held strong. My oldest daughter was barely talking to me. My heart was in my throat but still we drove them to dock 9 &3/4 and all but shoved them on the boat.
“I hate the water. I don’t know anyone there. It’s going to be awkward,” said my 12 year old girl.
“What if I get homesick?” asked my 8 year old son.
“I really can’t live without my phone. You just don’t understand. My life!” moaned the 15 year old.
“Just go. Go and do something you think you can’t do. In fact, if you’re a little scared of trying it, make an extra effort to do it.” This was my best advice and I meant it, but I didn’t know if they were really listening.
How could I explain that I wanted the same thing for them that I’d had – the opportunity to expand their horizons, possibly more internally, than externally. Their lives are so busy and there is so much pressure to conform to popular ideas of girl and boy-hood. Ideas that come from peers, tv, movies. Not always the best ideas. I could see them settling in to a sense of self that was selling them short. I hated to see them living up to easy to apply labels that don’t have to define them, but threaten to.
I’d thought that camp could shake things up. But of course I worried.
After spending weeks working, packing and planning for them to have this wonderful experience I finally had to wonder, what if it wasn’t so great for them after all? What if they were miserable the entire time? Was it about them, or was it really about me? It was entirely possible that my experience of camp would not be parallel to theirs. Theirs could be a complete and total flop. It was only two weeks though. Two weeks of flop is unpleasant, but survivable.
By the second day, I was pretty sure it wasn’t a flop.
At night I stalked my children on the Bunk 1 website where I would see daily photos of the day’s camp activities. I’d search through hundreds of photos for a glimpse of my children in a candid shot. Each day I’d hit a little paydirt. There was my daughter leaning back in a sailboat. There was my son, biting his lip in concentration as he fired an arrow. By the end of the first week I could see that it was probably going to be a success.
So much can happen in two weeks.
Over the course of the past two weeks my 12 yr old discovered that she’s got great aim. She even outperformed her riflery counselor at one of her sessions. She conquered her fear of deep water, swam with bat rays and took a fabulous self portrait of herself, underwater with a snorkel on. This girl who we’re always urging to get a move on, voluntarily signed up for a 12 mile hike.
My 15 yr old missed over 90 Facebook notifications and 100 text messages while she was swimming with dolphins, making up skits and interacting with her peers without the aid of an electronic interface. She stepped on a leopard shark and lived to tell the tale. While she could have been Keeping up With the Kardashians she was kayaking, rock climbing and ziplining. She took beautiful photographs that she couldn’t wait to upload and share with her friends. I was happy to see that not one of these pictures involved her own reflection in a bathroom mirror. They reflected something better – her vision.
My 8 yr old didn’t really miss us at all, I’m just a bit sorry to say. Who knew how independent he was? He’s discovered a love of sailing, power boat activities, snorkeling, archery, and pretty much everything he tried. For a kid who couldn’t swim one year ago, and who has never had a sleepover, this is truly amazing.
Suddenly, as that boat rolled in, two weeks seemed hardly long enough. It was over too fast. Would these new found skills and experiences have time to set?
I was overjoyed to see my kids, but I was also sad that it was over for now. For the rest of the summer, no matter how hard I fight it, it’s inevitable that my kids will be plugged in and back in their routine. They will slip back into their usual family and friendship roles and the general myths and truths that swirl around them, attempting to define them.
I can only hope that they remember who they really are: girls who swim with bat rays and dolphins. Individuals with unique insight and the ability to hit their marks. I want my son to realize he’s already the tough little independent and capable guy he wants to grow into. Not just for now and not just for two weeks. I want these things for them always. That is why I cried.
They are my children. They are fierce, and so was camp.
We can’t wait for next year.
In the meanwhile, my teenager was pretty darned happy to see
me her cellphone again. She’s been dying to text her her friends and tell them all about camp.
Disclosure: I have a working relationship with Catalina Island Camps, and have traded professional consulting services for camp tuition this summer. I’m thrilled to work for them, frankly. Camp makes a difference for so many children, not just mine.