School is almost over and I am still trying to think of things for my children to do this summer: Day camp? Swim team? Theater camp? Gymnastics? So many choices, so many inconvenient schedules. When a parent heard me complaining about the lack of all-day summer camps in the area, she asked me if I had ever thought about sending my daughter away to camp. For many parents, this may be the ideal solution to a long—possibly frustrating—summer: your child enjoying a summer filled with swimming, hiking, craft-making, and new friends, all while you sit at home and enjoy a peaceful and carefree summer without the repeated words “I’m bored!” For me, however, the very thought sends shudders down my spine. Upon hearing the question, I want to run and grab my daughter, look her in the eyes and tell her “I will never send you away!” Melodramatic, right? I know, but my one and only experience with summer camp is one that I often tell as a cautionary tale for any parent who dares to ask me the question: Is your daughter going away to camp this summer?
I was eleven years old, and my father asked me if I wanted to go to a sleep-away camp during the summer. He had read about one in our church’s monthly newsletter that the church sponsored, and he thought it would be great if one of his children went. I wasn’t so sure, but after a persuasive sales pitch, some further cajoling, and the realization that he was asking me—not my older sister—made me agree to go. As it turned out, he also made the sales pitch to my nine-year-old brother, who also agreed to go. After my initial disappointment that I wasn’t the only one, I figured it would be nice to see a familiar face when away from home for a whole week.
I arrived at the camp nervous, yet eager to have the wonderful experience my father promised me. However, this excitement was replaced with terror as the counselors explained that we wouldn’t be allowed to call home—NO MATTER WHAT. Some kids started to cry at that, and inside I wanted to do the same. On the outside, however, I was stoic for I had always been told to “suck it up” by my father—and I was determined to do just that. As it turned out, this is the attitude I would need to have in order to survive the week.
The cabin I was staying in was divided into sections with two bunk-beds in each. I was much smaller than the other girls in my section, so I was told that I had to have the top bunk. [When I say “told,” I mean that the other three girls immediately began talking to me as if I were their little sister—and not in a good way.] I was honestly terrified, but I didn’t say anything.
As the week went on, one of the girls in my cabin decided to make it her mission to terrorize me every chance she had. She teased me, played tricks on me, sometimes even hurt me, and one time she even tried to drown me in the lake (well, that’s what I thought she was doing as she held me under water while I flailed away, but I could have been wrong). In addition to this mean girl, every time I came back to my bunk, more and more of my things were no longer there: the diary I brought to record my “adventures,” some of my clothes, my bug spray, even a pair of flip-flops. Throughout all of this, I never said anything to anyone.
The worst moment came on my last full day when my brother came to find me at my cabin. He cried as he told me that some bigger boys had stolen all of the things he had won at the fair the day before. I felt helpless as I comforted him, and I wish I could say that I found those older boys and made them give him back his toys, but I didn’t—instead I told him that we only had to suck it up for one more day.
You would think that the first thing I would have done when my parents came to get me would have been to run and tell them every last horrible detail of my time at camp. Even now as I write this, I am surprised—and even slightly perplexed—at my own silence. I never told my parents anything about it. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that the camp was actually for kids with behavioral problems. It all made sense—and I finally told them about my horrific experience.
Now, I know that most camps are nothing like the one I went to when I was eleven, but I can’t help but have a visceral reaction every time I think of it. As a parent, the lesson that I have taken from this experience is that before I send my children anywhere, I will be sure I know what kind of place it is (even if it is written about in a church newsletter). My advice to my daughter is something that I tell her all the time (another lesson I learned from my camp experience), she should always tell me if she is put in a situation in which she is uncomfortable, afraid, or nervous. She should know that I will never ridicule her for it, and I will never tell her to “suck it up.”