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I Survived Summer Camp. Will The Kids?

I survived summer campAah, my memories of summer camp: sitting on a rusty nail and the tetanus shot that followed, gazing into the camp fire and my glasses falling in, being slathered in calamine lotion after lying in poison ivy, walking terrified from bunk to bathroom in the middle of the night with all manner of animal—including stinky boys—observing.

These are the memories of a lifetime, and I wanted to make sure my kids had them as well. So when we moved to Rochester, the first thing I did was search for summer camp programs.

People thought I was nuts. Why would you send your kids to camp? Let them do nothing. Let them just play. They’ll figure out what to do with themselves.

But they were five and three at the time, and I knew that if I didn’t find a summer camp, I would end up as their camp counselor. Somehow I knew this would not be a good thing.

I searched and searched until I found the day camp that sounded like Club Med for kids; with arts and crafts, singing around the campfire, canoeing and swimming, and lots and lots of dirt (none of which would enter my home, as I intended to hose them down before entering). It was called Creative Themes. and for 27 years they have entertained kids during Rochester summers. And, of course, I couldn’t get them in. There was a huge waiting list, and no amount of cajoling, begging or crying worked. How could this be, since everyone I met kept telling me that no one in this town sent their kids to camp?
   
When I was a kid growing up in New York City, there was no question that I was going to camp—day camp first and, when I was older, sleepaway camp. It’s not that I was a fresh-air kid growing up amid city asphalt and in need of some green. I grew up in the greenbelt of Staten Island (yes, there is one). But my mother knew that an idle child and a busy mother was not a good combination. By the time I came along (the youngest of four), she signed me up at birth to attend the day camp my siblings had gone to before me.  
From the very first day, I hated going. It was buggy and hot, and the grounds were near a fetid-smelling swamp. This was, after all, the Greenbelt of Staten Island. Each summer, the day camp would host an overnight in the woods.  It was on one of those sweltering nights covered with sweat that my glasses fell off my face and into the fire, melting on the spot. I was now not only hot but blind.

And then I was scared. Around the same campfire the counselors told the ghost story of Cropsey, the famous axe-murderer from Staten Island who was rumored to roam the very woods we were sleeping in. Since I couldn’t see, I spent the whole night with my eyes covered, hoping that he wouldn’t come to get me. At the time, I didn’t know that Cropsey roamed the woods in virtually every camp on the eastern seaboard. I couldn’t sleep for months.

When my parents decided I was old enough (and they wanted to travel more), they signed me up for a six-week sleepaway camp, way far away from the City, in “upstate New York” (Poughkeepsie). There, I met sophisticated kids from exotic places like Manhattan and Long Island; tough 12-year-olds who sold contraband candy from their lockers. At the opening-night talent show, I defined myself almost immediately by reading the famed, “All The World’s A Stage” speech from As You Like It. I was the only one performing Shakespeare that night. Most of the other kids played guitar, juggled or performed magic tricks.

My weird variety show taste didn’t earn me any new friends. But I caught the eye of the drama counselor, who saw a (melo)dramatic actress in the making and offered me the starring role in the famous one-woman show, Sorry Wrong Number, about a bed-ridden socialite who believes she’s going to be murdered (immortalized on film by Barbra Stanwyck). Later, the pinnacle of my theatrical career would be co-writing and performing my own one-woman show at the oldest women’s theater in the country. My entire future career began at that camp.
 
My husband, from Geneva, N.Y., never went to camp. It would have been redundant. Instead, he spent his summers riding his bike with his friends. He slept outside in a field near his house they dubbed the “A” field. He hung out at the American Legion and heard his Mom screaming across the field to come home.  He even spent summers working for his father as early as 2nd grade. And some of his best memories were playing euchre to the sound of the crickets in the night on his best friend’s porch.  
 
The irony isn’t lost on me that now we pay money so that my kids can have the kind of summers that my husband had for free in Geneva. They’re even learning to play euchre to the sound of crickets, though in a very expensive field.
 
Sleepaway camp can be an amazing learning experience, even beyond the obvious chance to gain independence. Today there’s a camp for every interest. You can find traditional sports camps, but also paintball, adventure or riflery camps (for the budding hunter, I suppose). Theater is passé when you can go to circus, gaming or modeling camp. There’s even a spa camp (I’m still trying to figure out if the kids are getting the pedicures or learning to give them, because if it’s the latter, it might be worth the investment). I was completely amused when my nephew went to Space Camp. Fortunately for NASA, the experience didn’t inspire him to become an astronaut.
 
My husband, who dreamed of playing football, went to football camp for five days one summer. His friend learned a lot there and went on to play football at a Division I school. My husband went on to become a Division-I caliber partier at his school. Obviously they learned different things at camp.

Some people follow their dreams and find their future profession at camp. Others meet the partner of their dreams. I know several people who met at sleepaway camp and have now been married for decades. At their summer camp, there’s even a plaque honoring all the camp couples. I was not so lucky. I did kiss my first boy at camp after hiking to the Poughkeepsie Overlook, but I came back to camp covered in poison ivy.

Eight weeks is a long time to figure out how to entertain your kids, or for your kids to figure out how to entertain themselves. I’m certain that my son would disappear into the television set for the summer if left to his own devices. I think my daughter would be very enterprising, organizing lemonade stands, neighborhood plays and fundraisers for endangered species—but I would be exhausted.

Instead, we get a break from each other for three weeks each summer. They learn to fend for themselves without their parents. There are no electronics allowed. They watch the stars unfold in clear black skies. They roast marshmallows over open fires. My son comes home looking like a homeless man returning to the shelter, often with about half the clothes he left home with. My daughter returns and tells us about each and every day of camp in excruciating detail. They love it. And so do I. While I cry when the bus leaves to take them away, I know that they’re working on learning who they are, independent of the pressures of school and the friends they see every day. They’re also learning group dynamics and leadership skills that will help them no matter what they choose to do in the future.

And there’s an added bonus: When my kids go to summer camp, it’s a chance for my husband and I to spend time alone. We get to know each other again without having to worry where the kids are or what they need. One friend of mine said “like good fences make good neighbors, good camps make good couples.” Each summer we talk abou
t traveling when the kids are away. But instead, we revel in having our house to ourselves, which I suppose in some way is preparing us for a future that will be here in the blink of an eye.

A few years ago, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner wrote a book about how he learned about life during his summer camp experience. I suppose he’s right. I learned to express myself theatrically. I learned that the great outdoors is not my thing. And I learned: Never, ever, lean over a fire with loose glasses.

Author: Pam Sherman

The Suburban Outlaw is an actress, playwright and recovering lawyer living in Pittsford with her husband, two children and dog, Curley. Her Web site is www.suburbanoutlaw.com. You can read her blog at www.herrochester.com.

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