Ellen Freeman Roth                      

September 3, 2007

Life's lessons make a happy camper

During the focus on fall schedules and preparations for new academic and social challenges came a reminder of the delight of midsummer. Counselors from my 15-year-old daughter's overnight camp visited.

My daughter and her bunkmates left their final season at camp a few weeks ago. Some of the girls had been together for eight summers where cabins buzzed with spirit rather than electronics and the uniform policy drew the focus to personality, not labels.

Climbing walls and sunrises got the girls high; drama wasn't gossip, it was getting thrown into rapids while rafting. At camp you don't get shunned, one camper said. "When you live in one cabin, no one can be excluded," another girl explained.

Taking risks meant performing in a talent show or trying to wakeboard. My daughter could've joined the frequent flyer program at the local hospital's ER. Nonetheless, overnight camp had been a liberating and nurturing summer idyll.

As my husband tossed our daughter's pine-needle covered sleeping bag into the car, a camp director sighed, "It's the end of an era."

Indeed, but leaving camp didn't mean leaving all of camp behind.

We'd learned that from our son. During his last summer as a camper two years ago, we wished he could bottle camp's magic. Apparently he had. The writing was on his white board, where he'd recorded a quote from his camp counselor: "Your leadership qualities will take you everywhere in life." Those words, now smudged in red marker, offered a handy reminder last spring when he considered running for high school president. He won.

When we scouted camps for my son, my daughter claimed she wanted to go, too. I insisted that 8 years old was too young. Finally I relented. That first summer was tough, a lesson in how to separate. After several weeks and a box of tissues, though, I'd learned that I could - and so could my kids.

This year at the end of camp, the senior campers could barely separate from each other. They clung together weeping in their tie-dyed shirts, a jumbled rainbow of tanned arms and uncombed hair. In the back seat, my daughter and her friend cried and sang of friendship, memories and moose. Camp songs are our summer lullabies, one said to the other, and they fell asleep holding hands.

Now my daughter's camp blanket is spread across her bed under her computer, which finally went into sleep mode when the counselors visited. As we drove into the bus station, the two big brotherly counselors lofted the camp banner. My daughter and her friend jumped from the car shrieking.

Back in the car, my daughter confessed, "I didn't wakeboard during our family vacation because I was afraid to embarrass myself in front of a cute guy in the boat."

"But you could've wowed everyone with a 180!" the wakeboarding counselor exclaimed. "Promise you won't hold back next time?"

The girls asked, "Can we keep the banner?" No, the banner would return to camp for next year's campers.

I asked my daughter's friend, "What's so remarkable about camp?"

She stammered and then said, "From the outside looking in, you can't understand it, and from the inside looking out, you can't explain it."

Decades ago my mother-in-law was an avid camper. When at age 75 she died, suddenly, flowers arrived with a card that read, "Heartbroken. Bunk 11." Even when the cabins are shuttered, the campfire stays warm.