This post is contributed by Andy Bill, Maine Teen Camp parent.
I was brought up in England and, despite an extended stay in the U.S. (30 years and counting), I knew nothing about summer camps or their nostalgic tradition. Until last spring, when my two boys, aged 13 and 14, overheard their friends planning their hazy-happy summer weeks, romping through the woods, as feral as Lost Boys in Never Never Land, sprung from the servitude of the Connecticut suburbs and their parents’ incessant advice.
I was, I admit, a bit cynical about the idea. As a family we fish, hike, sail, play tennis and camp, so what could a summer camp possibly add? But my wife, who is American and honors her camp years as the high note of her life, urged me to ask around. OK, I said, but only if I find a camp that fits my rigid criteria. Maine is, for me at least, as much a metaphor as a state, the timeless Americana of rope swings and slo-mo splashes into cloud-mirrored lakes. So that was a good place to start.I wanted my boys to have the kind of freedom that comes without wires, headphones and wifi. “Co-ed” was a priority since I blame almost all of my social awkwardness on my cloistered upbringing in all-boys boarding school. Throw in my kids’ love of all outdoor activities and I was almost ready to embrace the prospect of them having fun without me. One of their friends closed the deal when he chose a camp in southern Maine and wondered if Tobey and Jake would be interested.
We signed them up for a try-it-and-see, two-week program and, after a nervous ride north, dropped them off by the side of that glassy lake on a bright day in June. One “bye” and they were gone as fast as fish, swept up in the currents of adolescent energy that were, even on drop-off day, already flowing this way and that through the wooded property. However, the smiles didn’t last long and nerves soon gave way to separation anxiety. For two weeks we, the unanchored parents, sat by our computer each night clicking through the daily postings of camp photos searching Waldo-like for their faces, weighing each expression for the subtlest of hints. Were they happy? Finally, they called, a day before pick up, imploring us to let them stay through the full four-week session. Pick up day – for them — was as painful as a tooth extraction.
Over the next few days, as the stories tumbled out along with the fetid clothing and assorted crafts, it was clear that many things had been learned. Among them:
1) No matter how much creativity you pour into blacksmith class, no matter how long you wail on a molten iron bar and call it a “fire poker,” it looks just like an iron bar.
2) It’s official: the “kids” era has ended. During the month away, they matured at an accelerated rate and now nothing can – or, if I’m honest, should – stop the inevitable momentum. If you want your kids to live in your basement for the rest of their lives, do not send them to camp.
3) While frisbee golf, swinging from the cafeteria rafters and charades are all important life skills, the biggest and best lesson you learn in summer camp is who you are…really are…when freed from the rigid expectations and pretensions of real life.
4) There are some things that a parent can’t teach. They are personal, and private and powerful. Kids have to find them out for themselves and camp is the ideal classroom.
5) The Internet is not as essential as oxygen. Not only can kids survive without it, they thrive in its absence, stumbling across the wonder of human connection and the creativity inherent in idleness.
6) As soon as kids get in the car to go home they fall asleep deliberately, so they don’t have to answer any of your lame questions. When they wake up they have forgotten lesson #5.
I am not saying I was wrong about summer camp. All I’m saying is that it’s only November and we have just signed the kids up for next summer. The reason? We need another poker.