Whether you’re 11 or 20, camp is valuable

A couple weeks ago, I ate lunch with a group of 15- and 16-year-olds — the same kids I’m supposed to transform this summer into “future camp leaders.”

One of the girls said that her friends and teachers give her strange looks when they find out what she’s doing this summer: the old “aren’t you a bit old for summer camp?” “Look,” I said, “wait until you’re a sophomore in college and you tell people you’re going back to camp.”

Wait until you’re a sophomore at Yale. You could go to China, or South Africa, or New Zealand, all on someone else’s money. You could work in the lab that will someday make a major breakthrough in the fight against cancer. You could don a suit everyday during the Washington, D.C., summer and get a resume-building internship at the State Department, or the Justice Department, or the Senate. Or you could get paid $1.43 an hour to get addicted to caffeine, shower twice a week, and teach middle-class kids how not to fall off a horse. Sound like fun?

Intellectual justifications for summer camp always sound laughably empty to me. In fact, the beauty of the “camping movement,” as some camp directors like to call it, is its laugh-in-your-bookworm-face defiance of intellectual justification. Why do we go to camp? Why do we smile knowingly at the looks that say, “You’re wasting your potential, young man”?

Because it’s fun. Because there aren’t enough places in the universe where a big kid can devote his every waking hour to making sure a bunch of little kids have a really great day. Because one day I’ll wake up and be too old. Because even the most hard-nosed eggheads among us may someday admit, “My summer camp made me who I am.”

Geneva Glen raised me. Every summer, for two or four weeks, I slept on a hard mattress and ate mass-produced macaroni because I believed then, as I do now, that camp is the greatest place on Earth. I believed it with the single-minded ardency of an 8-year-old mind. Half a liberal-arts education from Yale hasn’t done anything to dampen my dogmatic zeal. I believe in camp, without really knowing exactly why. Geneva Glen is, quite simply, where I belong.

It’s easy to talk about giving back to a place that has given me so much, or about “enriching lives, building tomorrows” (as the American Camping Association motto reads). But I don’t wake up at camp and think about enriching anyone’s life. I don’t think about the life skills — independence, relational and social abilities — that kids are supposed to get from camp. I don’t think about camp’s role in turning drooling children into well-adjusted young adults. I just want the slobbering 7-year-olds to have a great day.

Yale breeds an intense academic and social environment. We take hard classes, compete for space in size-limited extracurriculars and societies. Then we spend our summers pushing for that extra edge, that additional letter of recommendation, that one special experience that will change our life. I’d like to think I’ve found that experience, even if it doesn’t look like much, even if future employers ask with a chuckle, “You spent three years as a camp counselor?”

Yes, sir, I did. I’ll send my kids to camp, and tell them to send their kids. And far too many people I know feel the same way about their camps for it to be an accident. Something indescribably awesome happens when a bunch of kids spend two weeks not showering and flinging mud at their counselors. I’ve got no problem putting half a Yale education to work as a mud target.

Xan White is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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