Some of the kids I first met as young campers are now in their final years on the teen staff. Watching them grow from young, unsure kids staying away from home for the first time to the more capable young adults they are becoming has been a heartwarming experience. I have kept in contact with several of them throughout the year, and seen the rest of them at the monthly camp meetings we have throughout the year. These staffers have been a great part of my life, and I am thrilled to be a part of theirs. (continued from Camp, part 1)
But then there are those campers that aren’t what we expect them to be. One difficult camper broke a bathroom door, threw rocks towards other campers, and told a staffer to “F- off”. And we all wanted to throttle him.
“What do you want to do?” one chaperone asked me when I came to him about the situation. “Call his parents? Send him home?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “All the staffers are throwing their hands up in the air. We just don’t know what to do.”
“Do you want to talk to him?” he asked, and I said yes. We called him over and sat apart from the rest of the camp.
“I wish I knew who broke that door,” the mangy kid said.
“So you know why we’re here,” I said. I had no idea how to go about this. I knew I was at my wit’s end after having had the kid’s obstinence directed at me, and after hearing how he’d been abusing my staff. And he was obviously going to continue denying the broken door. Any accusations against him would only result in a back and forth, roundabout conversation. And we would get nowhere. I waited for the other chaperone to take the lead.
“So how do you like camp?” the chaperone asked.
“It’s great!” he exclaimed. “It’s my favorite camp that I go to.”
“You go to other camps?” the chaperone asked.
“Just one other. It’s called Alateen,” he answered.
“Alateen? What’s that?” the chaperone asked.
“Well, it’s just a two day camp. It’s ‘cause my mom’s an alcoholic.”
“So you just live with your dad?” I asked. And he nodded. The brick walls he had built around him were slowly being taken down. And little by little we were getting glimpses of his home life, and how this one week was a reprieve from reality. He never admitted fault to the bathroom door, and we didn’t broach the subject further. But he did admit that he had cussed out a staffer. We were all smiles as we chatted, and I got a chance to know the kid who I had only known as a major pain in my neck just moments before.
“Are you coming back next year?” I asked him as we winded the conversation down.
“Of course!” he said. “I love this camp!”
“And are you planning on being on staff?” I asked.
“I guess I do,” but he visibly lit up at this suggestions.
“You know you’d be working very close to the staff if you did,” I pointed out.
“Yeah….” he said slowly.
“Maybe you might want to apologize to the staffer you cursed at,” the other chaperone said. The camper agreed, though I still don’t know if he did or not. But whenever I saw him for the rest of camp, his face was a smile, a sharp contrast from the glare he threw at me the very first time I saw him.
There’s something about camp. It’s the place where time stands still, where the hardships of real life take a back burner for one week. Everyone is accepted. Geeks are suddenly the cool kids. The cool kids are suddenly not so critical and are jumping and singing with everyone else. Everyone is equal, and fully themselves. Everyone is comfortable in their skin. Friendships are made that seem closer than any other friendship ever felt. Everything is funny, happy, surreal…. It is not uncommon to hear someone singing songs about bazooka bubble gum or swimming holes, or even odes to their dirty black socks. The stars are brighter at camp, and sleeping on planks under them is magical. Crafts such as making pillows or wind chimes never sounded more appealing.
This year the campfire burned bigger and brighter than ever, thanks to the expertise of our staff and the tribes, but I think because the spirit was alive and jumping to the music with us.
I cannot put words to camp and do it justice. But before I left I sat in the very spot I had sat in for years at camp, and I took in all I was about to leave behind until next year. The benches were empty, but for a moment I saw laughing campers filling each seat. I saw our teen staff in front, the ones who worked all week long to make sure a bunch of kids were happy and taken care of. Camp songs echoed in my ears as if the camp spirit surrounded me and enveloped me like a ghost. I saw the beautiful trees, heard the gurgling creek, breathed in the forest air.
I believe that there are certain places that are our heavens on earth, and this is one of mine….