Canoeing. Archery. Pottery. Camping. Tennis. Breast stroke. Riflery. Fishing. Soccer.
I learned a lot in my seven years as a kid attending Camp Kenwood in Potter Place, New Hampshire. That’s one of the reasons my parents sent me and my sisters away for eight weeks every summer. They wanted us to acquire hard skills that might not be taught to us in the small suburban town of North Plainfield, New Jersey, where we were raised. They also hoped we’d develop softer social skills, like independence and resilience, and perhaps make friends for life with kids from outside of our northeast New Jersey cocoon (big sister landed a husband from Florida, so Roger that!).
But there’s a whole other level of hidden and not-so-obvious lessons that I learned from attending summer camp. Here are a few of them.
Learning about my spiritual side: I hated religious services so much as a kid, I never explored my spiritual side. But Friday night services at Camp Kenwood, a predominantly Jewish summer camp, changed my attitude. In fact, I might call the services a blessing. They were only 30 minutes long, everyone wore t-shirts and shorts, laid-back counselors helped lead the service, and the gathering was shared with the girls from nearby Camp Evergreen. On Friday nights, a blanket of serenity settled on the camp as lengthening shadows danced across ball fields and tennis courts, and the chirp of birds pierced the stillness of the oncoming night. It made me feel connected to something vast, powerful and beautiful. It instilled in me a sense of spirituality that lasts until this day, many decades later.
Learning about sex (theoretically): For me and my camp buddies, our counselors seemed like grown men. They shaved every day, drove cars, drank beer, smoked cigarettes and, most especially, talked knowingly (or so we thought) about women from what appeared to be deep and joyous personal knowledge. Things our dads could never quite discuss with us – or we with them – were part of everyday open conversation. I won’t go into the specifics in a family newspaper, but most of it was practical and respectful with a dose of biology, a dash men’s magazine frothy wisdom and a hint of bravado. If you had a cool guy as your counselor, it was like having Hugh Hefner as a bunkmate.
Learning to appreciate food: Before attending summer camp, I took for granted a regular, high-quality diet of food that was available on a 24/7 basis. After all, I was a spoiled kid growing up in a middle-class New York suburb with a mom who doted on her children. So it was something of a nutritional shock to be subjected to institutional food, three times a day, over the course of a summer. It made me more mindful of the bounty that filled our well-stocked New Jersey kitchen for the other ten months of the year.
Learning to engage with alternative forms of entertainment: Television, radio and Saturday matinees were my primary forms of entertainment as a child. Once I landed in summer camp, those options vanished. But I and my bunkmates found other ways to amuse ourselves without relying on the electronic media crutch. We learned storytelling (ghost tale, anyone?), singing, cards, chess, and yes, even reading. And we were never bored
Learning to create a written narrative of my daily life: That’s a fancy way of describing letter-writing day. It was a mostly forced activity but once I leaned into it, I honed my talents for describing the peaks of my camp experience (I hit a home run today and everyone gave me a big cheer at dinner!). Looking back, I can see that I was producing a written narrative about my life at a young age. Plus I was learning the under-appreciated art of written self-expression, which would provide me with a solid foundation for my career in the media.
Learning about college: The concept of college permeated the camp experience. The older kids were studying for their SATS or they pored through college guides like Peterson’s during rest periods. Counselors wore t-shirts with colorful logos silently announcing their collegiate affiliation. They discussed fraternities, all-nighters, term papers and spring break. I asked a constant stream of questions about areas of study and the college experience. By the time I reached my junior year of high school I knew exactly what my major would be and where I wanted to study. Thank you Camp Kenwood.
Learning when to move on: I returned to camp as a junior counselor after a one-year absence and it was the worst summer of my life. I was no longer as interested in organized sports activities, bunk camaraderie, capture the flag, pottery, Saturday night socials, color war and even just talking about girls. I wanted to live a life without curfews, meet young women and earn some real money. I had loved the summer camp experience, but something was whispering in my ear and I couldn’t turn off the noise. A season in my life was coming to an end and there was another chapter just over the horizon that I couldn’t quite see. Call it what you will. Self-awareness. Maturity. Growing up. Whatever. But it was the most important lesson camp ever taught me.