If you’ve ever read the first Harry Potter book, you know that on Harry’s 11th birthday, he receives his invitation to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He subsequently joins a magical world that he never knew existed, but is the place where he truly belongs. More than at any other point in the series, this is a moment at which I relate to Harry. My 11th birthday was my first day of my first summer at Surprise Lake Camp.
I have spent 10 summers at SLC, 5 as a camper and 5 as a staff member. Each one of those summers has hundreds of its own stories that I could spend days talking about, but I don’t want to go into that here, and you wouldn’t want to sit here and read every story that I have to tell. Camp is a really hard thing to explain, and as such, it’s even harder to write about. My plan here is to tell one story from each summer that explains something that camp has taught me. Hopefully I stick to that plan.
2003 – I10 – How to think independently
Shortly after arriving at camp, mainside campers choose a hobby, an activity that they can choose to go to three extra times per week. My first summer, I chose drama hobby. Acting in a play was something I never really had the opportunity to do at home, so I decided that camp would be a good place to test my skills and try something different. I didn’t care what anyone else thought, I simply made my own decision to act. I’m really happy I did too, I met some of my closest friends from that session in drama hobby, including the only person I’ve been friends with at camp for all ten of my summers.
2004 – F16 – How to stand up for yourself
When I was in Frontier, I had a really bad group. I was that one camper who didn’t really do anything wrong, but still got in trouble because the rest of the group was so poorly behaved. One night, we were supposed to hike to Cornish and hear the story, but we had to turn back halfway down the trail because our group couldn’t behave maturely. As someone who never had the story before, this really upset me. The next day, I wrote a letter to the rest of my group telling them to calm down so that people who wanted to enjoy certain activities could enjoy them. From that day on, the rest of the group seemed to respect me a lot more, simply because I stood up for myself. That was the first time at camp that I really felt like I had a voice
2005 – BH23, BH24 – How to learn from your mistakes
This past summer at camp, one thing I was known for was giving sailboat practicals. But I wasn’t always an expert—I failed the practical the first time I took it. It was a cloudy day on teenside, and the last day of waterfront specialty for first session. I had successfully set up the boat and learned to sail, but I had a bit of trouble cleaning it up. Strike that. I had a lot of trouble both folding up the sail and tying the final knot, the daisy chain. The counselor who was giving the practical had to fail me, and I can’t blame him. I was really upset about it, but I came back at the beginning of second session and passed. I used the disappointment to motivate me to figure out what I did wrong and pass the practical on the next try.
2006 – TL27, TL27 – How to keep enjoying camp after things go wrong
In my second summer on teenside, I had a lot of things to knock me down. First, I got held back in lower teens for a second year. Next, I had two groups that didn’t get along particularly well. After that, I was rejected by both of the girls I asked over the two sessions. Lastly, I had my first freak injury at camp: scratching my cornea. This began a streak of weird injuries/sicknesses at camp, such as a staph infection (2007) and Lyme disease (2010). But I digress. After all of these setbacks, I kept pushing myself to get back up and give camp another chance. For example, when I scratched my cornea, I had to wear an eye patch. I was embarrassed to walk into the teenside dining hall for dinner that night because of it, but my counselor made it seem like having an eye patch was awesome. Thanks to him, I was able to keep enjoying my camp experience like nothing was wrong.
2007 – TL35, TL34 – How to contribute to a team
My last summer as a camper was the only summer I enjoyed Olympics. I’m guessing this is true because it was the only summer I actually helped my team. By this point, I had been on my school’s swim team for several years now, so I knew I was a good swimmer. When Olympics rolled around, I signed up for a bunch of races mainly because nobody else on the red team wanted to. I ended up in six consecutive races. I won five of them. I single-handedly gave my team a huge number of points using my unique skill set. Although my team didn’t end up winning (we came in second, stupid blue team breaking the curse…), I knew that I had directly and tangibly contributed to the team’s success.
2008 – Library Aide – How to be the best at whatever job you have
Since I didn’t get into Work Program in 2007, I didn’t get the first crack at aide jobs for the next summer. The job that I knew I was best suited for, Waterfront Aide, was taken by a very good friend of mine. After an interview in the winter office in January, I received the job of Library Aide. This was a new job, so I really had to be the one to decide what it would become. I worked hard at it by completely reorganizing the library, keeping inventory of both books and board games, and giving campers something to do when “Library” was on a group’s schedule. At the end of the summer, a former Library Aide congratulated me on a job extremely well done making the library relevant again. That former Library Aide was the Executive Director, Jordan Dale.
2009 – MVB CA – How to be flexible
2009 was the first summer that I was responsible for a group of campers. I think the key to my success as a CA was that I was ready to handle any task that the counselors or supervisors needed me for. If I had to keep campers busy during rest hour because the counselors were working with other campers, I was there. If I had to cover for a group that was having a lot of conflict and could explode at any second, I was there. If I needed to lead the youngest campers in camp in an epic charge across the ballfield to find shelter from the rain, I was there. I was always ready for anything, and that was the reason why I was so valuable to my unit (that’s my staff reports talking, not me).
2010 – M3 Counselor, M2 Counselor – How to do the little things right
2010 was an amazing summer because all of the counselors in my unit were very close friends. I would argue that MVB 2010 was one of the strongest units in camp’s history. Unfortunately, not everything that summer went perfectly. One of my campers was sent home early, which is never an easy thing for a counselor. After helping him pack up his stuff, while we were waiting for the golf cart, I remembered that I still had his Nintendo DS in my room. I gave it back to him, and suggested that we play a game against each other (since I also had a DS) while we waited for the golf cart to take his stuff to the office. We were about to start when Ken walked in. He drove us to the main office, and I sat with my camper until his parents showed up. Offering to play a video game together or making fun of quirky moments in the camp office together made him happy at a time where I know I wouldn’t have been. And when he waved goodbye with a smile on his face, I knew that I had done something right.
2011 – M1 Counselor, M1 Counselor – How to be persistent
I complained a lot about summer 2011, but it wasn’t without reason. Most of the upper staff in camp agreed that my group was the worst group in camp that summer, as well as one of the worst groups they had ever seen. It took me a while to figure out how to deal with all the different clashing personalities and wide variety of needs within the group, but I eventually learned. One camper in particular seemed to be having a very tough time at camp. He never knew where any of his stuff was, had poor relationships with the rest of the group, and had no idea what was going on during most of our activities. Sometimes, I just wanted to scream at him, but that never really worked. Eventually, I managed to become close enough with this camper to help him get more out of his camp experience, but I was only able to get so far because I never gave up.
2012 – I9 Counselor, I10 Counselor – How to do what you love
This past summer was a victory lap for me in a way. I was a counselor in Idyllwood, the same unit I was originally a camper in my first summer. By second session, I was counselor for the same group, I10, that I started my camp journey with. My journey was complete, but I was a different person than I was when I began. If there were one moment from last summer to describe this, it would be the last hobby of second session. I had been in waterfront hobby all summer, giving sailboat practicals to all the mainside campers, and even passing some of them. During this last hobby, however, the waterfront director let me take out a boat by myself. It was the perfect day to sail—sunny, fairly windy, and not too hot. I confidently captained the boat around the lake on my own as if shouting to the whole camp “This is who I am! This is where I belong!” When boats were called in, I tied up the sail and swam back to the boating area, not realizing that it would be my last time in the lake that summer.
My proudest moment of this past summer was standing on stage and receiving my five-year jacket. When my name called, I ran from my seat as fast as I could (I was slowed down by campers mobbing me for hi-fives and hugs) to the stage to put on my jacket. On stage, I hugged and congratulated all of my friends on stage, friends that I had grown up at camp with. The only person I had been friends with for all 10 summers was one of the people on stage, and I made sure to thank her for just being a friend over all those years. In this moment, the only thing I was feeling was an intense love for camp and what I do there. No job in the world would ever make me as happy as working at SLC.
If it were up to me, camp would go on forever. But sadly, it doesn’t. Every summer, we all have to say goodbye to each other, promise that we’ll keep in touch, and shed a few tears over how much we’ll miss our friends. The more years you spend at camp, the more meaningful the experience of saying goodbye becomes. My first summer, I left the senior dining hall without even saying goodbye to most of my friends. My last summer, I held up my ride out of camp for nearly half an hour so I could find my friends scattered around camp and say goodbye to them. I knew that saying goodbye on that beautiful Monday morning was something I had to do because I might not have another chance. Leaving SLC is always hard to do, but this past summer was the hardest of all. That’s because this past summer was my last summer at camp. I won’t be back at SLC for summer 2013.
Obviously I want to come back to camp again this summer, but I can’t. Eventually, we all need to grow up and find a place in the so-called “real world” where we belong. The most important thing that I would like to thank camp for this past summer was telling me that I was ready to find my place. I knew that camp had done its job when I felt ready to leave and face the world.
Now that I’m approaching the end of this blog post, I should admit that I’ve technically been lying about the fact that I spent 10 summers at camp. Technically, there was an 11th. In 2002, I did Get Your Feet Wet, and spent five days at camp. While the experience didn’t totally thrill me, it made me want to come back for more, which is what ultimately matters. But when I did come back for more, I found out that Get Your Feet Wet had taught me all the wrong things. Over those five days, we took a hike, a trip to teenside, had a mini-Olympics, and put on a show for our parents at the Eddie Cantor. Those were all great things, no doubt, but they weren’t the true essence of camp. Camp is special because of the ordinary, everyday moments you share with your friends. My camp friends are important to me not because of extraordinary moments like performing in the all camp show together at the end of the session, but because of ordinary moments like making a game out of rehearsing lines for the show together while waiting for the rest of the group to change for swim. Camp’s power lies in its ability to make the ordinary things that would be boring anywhere else into something new, exciting, and memorable. To modify what has become an SLC cliché, an ordinary day at camp is better than an extraordinary day anywhere else.
While I won’t be back at camp this summer, I know my heart will be there. From my internship in the city, I’ll always be thinking about how camp has impacted me and how much I wish that those ordinary moments with friends could last lifetimes. Every night, I’ll wish that I was sleeping beneath the stars with the sound of cicadas and crickets just outside my window. If there is one perfect place in the world, it is Surprise Lake Camp, . I’m going to miss camp terribly, but I know that I’ll be back again someday soon. And soon can’t come soon enough.
Thank you, Surprise Lake, for the memories, for the friendships, and for helping me discover my identity. On behalf of all those who have to leave camp one day, thank you for preparing me all these years for the day when I would finally have to say goodbye one last time.