Recently, my friend Nick went on a
tirade rant about how he doesn’t understand why so many people in his area consider sleepaway camp a necessity. As a former camper, I was a little upset at his choice of words. It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never been to sleepaway camp why it’s so important, or why so many people consider it a necessity, but I’m going to give it a try.
For those of you not familiar with sleepaway camp, let me explain. Imagine, deep in the woods or mountains (or sometimes both), a small village filled with cabins, soccer fields, basketball and tennis courts, a lake, maybe a pool, a whole lot of dirt, trees and bugs. Inhabiting that village are hundreds of screaming children, living for 4 to 8 weeks in those cabins, supervised by just as unruly college students. Three times a day, they’re hoarded into a giant holding tank where they’re fed such luxury foods as pizza bagels, somewhat baked chicken (and not always minus the feathers), and sugar flavored water. Sometimes, during those feeding times, a random song or dance will break out (if you’re lucky, those screaming chants will include immense peer pressure to get one camper to kiss another, quick and on the cheek. Ask me how I know this). Sounds horrible, right?
I assure you, it’s not.
There is nothing better than spending 8 weeks living with your friends, away from your parents, learning to do fun things like canoe or sail or make immense amounts of lanyard bracelets. It’s a time where kids who are too shy to try out for the school play can become theater stars or the nonathletic to participate on a sports team. It’s a place where girls who never get asked on dates always have a boyfriend (ask me how I know this). It’s an atmosphere that allows you to be who you really are and have people accept you for it. It’s a place, truly, where self-esteem is built and it provides an escape from a life that many kids desperately need an escape from. To me, you can’t put a price tag on that.
But in addition to the self-esteem building, there are plenty of other skills that kids learn at sleepaway camp (none of them involving late night raids, practical jokes or stealthily avoiding mandatory activities. Ask me how I know this). For instance, camp is where I learned the true importance of living in a clean house. Nothing says “clean this shit up” like the possibility of a chipmunk, raccoon, squirrel or various 6-8 legged creatures showing up to invade your stuff. I learned how to be organized because when you have 4 shelves for your clothes, ½ a shelf for your toiletries (for a 15 year old girl, ½ a shelf is not at all adequate) and you’re too afraid to store stuff under your bunk bed, you maximize and organize what you do have. I learned that there are consequences for showing up late and sometimes, rewards for showing up early. I also learned that hot water is in limited supply and that showing up late to the shower means an impossibly cold, unpleasant shower (due to this, I can take a complete shower, including shaving my legs, in under 5 minutes. TMI? Possibly. Completely true? Absolutely).
That’s not all. When you spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with the same people, you learn how to independently and quickly solve problems as well as let grudges go. In the same vein, you learn that you’re not going to get along with everyone, and that’s fine, but sometimes you’re still going to have to spend time together and you better not complain about it. You also learn that there is a whole world out there besides the small town you come from. Many summer camps employ counselors from other countries and let me tell you, that was pretty awesome. To this day, my favorite accent is that of a New Zealander and it’s all thanks to my counselor Natalie.
I guess, to answer Nick’s concern, sleepaway camp isn’t necessarily a need. Kids do survive just fine without it. But it’s not as big of a waste as it seems to be. Sure you may spend your days doing arts and crafts or playing soccer and your nights participating in talent shows and other ridiculous activities, but when all is said and done, sleepaway camp provides a lot of value to the campers. Many of the skills I have as an adult are either directly or indirectly related to what I learned at camp.
Plus, it’s just damn fun. I enjoyed the hell out of the summers I spent at my sleepaway camp. They are some of the fondest memories I have from my childhood, and if my daughter ever wants to go, I have no problem coming up with the money to send her. It may not be a life or death need but what she’ll gain from going will be worth every penny spent.