What They Don't Tell You About Summer Camp

April 27, 2008
By Stephanie Roush, Yarrow Point, WA

July 24. The bus pulls away from the parking lot, leaving your parents standing there looking longingly at the sputtering exhaust pipe while you pray that your mom doesn’t cry; nothing better than starting camp as the kid whose mom bawled her eyes out when the bus pulled away. Once the parking lot has left the rear window of the bus and more generic scenery has taken its place you begin to like the idea of no parents for a whole month. Let freedom ring.

What they don’t tell you about summer camp is freedom. Sure, everyone claims that they don’t need their parents, what a bunch of hooligans. No one washes your laundry for you, no one picks up the clothes that you fling about, no one tells you how big a bite you can take of that sloppy joe; you’re on your own now and little by little the realization sets in that mommy and daddy do a little more than embarrass you. Appearances are everything though. No way do you ever admit any of this separation sorrow you’re feeling, you buck up, lie to your counselor that you couldn’t miss your parents less. You take advantage of every minute of that freedom.

But, there’s always that one kid, the one who brings what you imagine to be their entire room in their suitcase. That suitcase is a bottomless pit, the whole cabin watches in awe as they take out the family photos in coordinating frames, the lawn chair, the blanket they’ve had since birth, and the emergency contacts card (laminated of course). They become the cabin joke. The two letters a day they receive from mommy and daddy elicit, the religious bathing habits they employ, the pop song that came out three years ago they secretly hum under their breath, the hideous hat they wear to bed each night, their adherence to all meal-time rules; all these things cause that awkward silence when they walk into the cabin or bathroom.
There’s always that one kid that just can’t accept that freedom.
What they don’t tell you about summer camp is that you sing all the time. Sure, everyone may know a couple of camp songs, but the amount that your counselor must know extends into the thousands. The songs can be heard throughout the whole camp, belted by the few who know all the words, contrasted by just you who doesn’t know any of them. There are ones about chocolate chip cookies, women who wash laundry in the forest and do a dance, and then there are the ones that unbeknownst to you will have you crying on the last night. The ones that go there, to that place, the one just left of the center of the heart that when hit something stirs within you, some emotion you don’t quite know exists yet. Every morning after breakfast the campers rush down to sit on the stairs and sing, sing, sing. Stupid, you think, why did mom and dad make me go here again? Hypocrite. First you’re thanking them for letting you find your independence for a month and now you’re running back into their arms. Yet, after a week you’re one of them, gobbling down that tenth pancake soaked in the awful fake syrup to get a good seat on those stairs so you too can sing, sing, sing.
Every morning, every night. You start and end your day with singing. Songs that two weeks ago seemed stupid and trivial have taken on new meaning. Soon, those chocolate chip cookies that you “gotta have more of” represent the whole experience. Everything you’ve experienced in the last two weeks can be summed up in one fifteen second song:
Chocolate chip cookies you gotta have more
Bake ‘em in the oven or buy ‘em at the store

But whatever you do have ‘em ready at the door
And I’ll love ya until I die…bum bum bum

What they don’t tell you about summer camp is that it becomes home. Not a home away from home, home. The counselors become your parents, the cabins your house, the friends your brothers and sisters. No matter how much happens in that eleven months of the year when you’re not at camp, when you come back it’s as though you never left. No matter how different you are, camp will always be the same, the constant in the equation. The sun reflects off the windows with the same brilliance as a hundred years ago, the food is just as bad as the year before and yet you don’t care one bit. That awful dry sticky meatloaf your mom always makes may be horrible, but it will always bring that nostalgic feeling of home rushing over you. Camp is the same. Shepherd’s pie, beef stroganoff, mystery meat tacos, watery scrambled eggs, disgusting foods that would best be left with the saran wrap still over the platter get eaten, but only because it’s home. It’s your home.

August 20. The last day, the last breakfast, the last songs, the last hugs, the last tears, it’s over. But what they don’t tell you is that it’s never really over. Camp lasts for twelve months of the year every year. The people you meet stay in your heart forever, the memories you make in your mind. You have grown so much since the last time you saw your parents, your biological parents. They hug you and question you wanting to hear everything on that car ride home. What they don’t tell you about summer camp is that it’s inexplicable.

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