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Girl Talk: I Hated Summer Camp

Camp Keeyumah, a lush patch of woods in northern Pennsylvania, is where my entire family experienced “the best moments of their lives.” I’ve been hearing about their beloved Shangri-La since I was in diapers. My grandparents were head counselors there for 13 years and my mom “grew up there” as a camper and then a counselor. In fact, that’s where she met my dad, a counselor as well. They fell in love when they were 16 and 17, respectively. Yes, they’re still married. Isn’t it romantic? But the story doesn’t end there.

When I was sent to Hilltop Camp in fifth grade, the hopes were high that I would be another camp success story. It was assumed by all (me included) that I would succumb to my heritage and embrace my sleep away experience with zeal! Make lifelong friends! Find a boyfriend … or maybe a husband! Learn to love tennis!

Camp Keeyumah lives on in the hearts and minds of my family and the endless network of alums that keep in touch via Facebook. They have yearly reunions, many of which I was dragged to as a child. One of which actually took place on the actual camp grounds! When the Keeyumah crew gets together, they reminisce about the time my dad hung a camper on a flagpole by his underwear (hilarious!) or when my mom’s team won the Color War (against all odds!). They sing camp songs and flip through the same yellowed photographs over and over, smiling like goons, grateful to part of one big, extended camp family.

This all seems like bizarrely cultish behavior to me.

Hailing from such a fanatically pro-summer camp family, the expectation was that I would love being a camper as much as the rest of my brood. When I was sent to Hilltop Camp in fifth grade, the hopes were high that I would be another camp success story. It was assumed by all, myself included, that I would succumb to my heritage and embrace my sleep away-experience with zeal. Make lifelong friends! Find a boyfriend … or maybe a husband! Learn to love tennis!

That wasn’t what happened. Camp and I didn’t connect. For starters, I am a person who appreciates comforts such as air conditioning, running water, and television. I fear tents, lakes, and the humiliation of having to bury my shit in a ditch. I become mentally unstable if I am not allowed to be alone, read books, or reflect. I become shell-shocked when faced with the prospect of communal bathrooms, overnight camping expeditions, and mandatory morning sing-alongs when I should be sleeping.

I spent most of summer hiding behind my favorite tree, visiting the infirmary with stomach pain (constipation), and attempting to talk my way out of Tribe Night. To cope, I took to journaling angry rants and following Marshall, the only counselor I liked, around like a stray alien. Marshall, who taught archery to support his painting career, had shoulder length hair, wore nerdy chic glasses and ripped Levis. He took every opportunity possible to reference the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Surprise! By some small miracle I was good at archery! This was a shock to me, seeing as how I was a chubster with zero hand-eye coordination. I basked in Marshall’s praise of my wizardry with a bow and arrow. I begged him to show me his paintings and to read his book aloud to me, since I couldn’t read it on my own since I wasn’t allowed to be alone. AT ALL. EVER. Why?!

Marshall humored me and taught me the broad strokes of Zen Buddhism. He referred to me as his Neophyte Apprentice Zen Master. He told me about the freedom of using oil paints on canvas. I developed a mad crush on him even though he was 24 and I was ten. He was the only person there who got me.

Marshall was the primary reason I gave into my zealot parents and agreed to give Hilltop Camp another shot the following summer. Maybe I would like it this time! Take up oil painting! Impress Marshall! Only Marshall hadn’t informed me of his other plans—to join an ashram. With the disappearance of Marshall and the appearance of my first pubic hairs, the second summer was even worse than the first. When I returned home, defeated, with a journal full of misgivings, I finally had to admit the truth to myself and to my family: I hated summer camp. We were all very disappointed by this confession.

All these years, I’ve felt like a Summer Camp Failure. A misfit amongst my family and the rest of humankind. I feared the worst: That I was a misanthrope incapable of enjoying things that other normal people do.

But then a read a piece on Slate.com called “You Are How You Camped.” According to this article, my disdain for summer camp may have been a sign of my bright future. In the piece, Timothy Noah analyzes what your enjoyment of summer camp—or lack thereof—says about your character.

“People (like myself) who didn’t enjoy camp tend to have a problem engaging in organized activities of all kinds … The more respectable among us often become journalists. If we’re extremely bright or creative (or aspire to be), we may become writers or scholars or artists. The common thread is an outsider mentality,” Noah explains.

If only I had known this sooner, I could have proudly told my parents that my hatred of summer camp was a sign my burgeoning creative brilliance. That my refusal to participate in Tribe Night was a sign that I would invent my own way of doing things. That my distaste for campfire sing-alongs meant I would excel at performing solo. That finding the bug juice in the mess hall totally disgusting was a sign that I just wasn’t made to drink the Kool-Aid, and that my outsider mentality meant I was destined me to be successful. That the best moments of my life were ahead of me.

I suspect Marshall knew this all along.

Photo: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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