Thursday, May 09, 2013

What Summer Camp Taught Me: A Retrospective Course Catalogue

This month marks twenty years since I first arrived on-site at Lutheridge in Arden, NC, to serve as a camp counselor. I originally applied for the job in order to fulfill a promise I’d made to my third-grade self. After spending several childhood summers as a camper there, I thought it might be pretty fun to serve on staff one day. As God planned it, one summer as a counselor ended up turning into three more. What seemed at the time to be a whimsical decision ended up charting a significant course for my young adult years.

In the intervening years since that first summer I’ve received two undergraduate degrees and a graduate degree in divinity. I’ve spent two years living abroad in two different countries. Ten years have passed since my ordination, and I’ve started a family. I feel I’ve reached a vantage point from which I can take stock and assess how much, if at all, those years on summer camp staff formed me. The verdict? Quite a lot; in fact, I fear they formed me more than any of my school-based educational experiences did. In retrospect, I can see now where I established some of my basic patterns of living and honed the contours of my fundamental worldview. It was not the nine years I spend in academia, but rather around the campfire and during afternoons of organizing field games. Where did I develop many of my habits and practices that shape me to this very day? Not in the classroom, but on the hiking trail and in the camp dining hall. Initially this “camp thing” was just supposed to be a job, but like other people have pointed out before, it actually ended up being a school for many “life skills.” As a way of marking this anniversary, I offer here a list (in no particular order) of the titles and brief descriptions of each course that serving on camp staff offered me, along with a summary of how they’ve left an impression on me these many years later.

Our first year staff shirt was a color we dubbed "Electric Watermelon"

METEOROLOGY 101: “Weather is never an issue.”

Let’s begin with the basic element of living in a semi-outdoor environment: knowledge of the local climate. In the mid-1990s, no college students carried around smartphones with weather apps. Neither did we have reliable access to television or the internet while we were working in the woods. One major result of this was we never knew what each day’s weather would bring. If it rained, we got wet. If we happened to guess correctly and bring along a rain jacket…we got a little less wet. A hunch that it might turn a little chilly during the evening’s activities meant that we simply tied a sweatshirt around our waist and wore it that way all day long. If a sudden storm cancelled our afternoon outdoor activities, we adapted with sit-down indoor games elsewhere. It seemed to me that no one on staff ever really worried about weather, even after the week one guy got struck by lightning crossing the dam in his automobile (thankfully he was OK). Rather, we assessed it and adjusted to it on an ongoing basis, which is all you really can do in the southern Appalachians anyway. I’m fairly certain this attitude has crossed into other areas of my life. Routine is helpful, but the ability to be flexible about the routine is probably even more so. People who can’t learn to roll with the weather changes are probably not going to succeed in general flexibility, and they’ll struggle in this remedial camp course. I think I did fairly well with it, but it’s had some long-lasting implications: to this day, I still rarely check a weather forecast. And I still get caught unprepared in the rain. My wife just shakes her head.

The end of a particularly grueling week?
BIOLOGY 201: “Bugs are no reason to freak out.”

Like abrupt changes in the weather, summer camp and creepy-crawlies go hand-in-hand. I had always been OK with spiders, bugs, and various woodland varmints, but I happen to remember the precise moment when I realized I had crossed into a new territory of tolerance for them. I was sleeping one afternoon on my bunk bed, exhausted from the morning’s adventures. I awoke to what felt like a small hair stroking my lip and nose. It was a daddy-long-legs, perched over my right eye. Who knows where it had come from or how long it had been feeling out my facial contours. My reaction was not one of fear or even surprise. Neither did I bolt out of bed in disgust. Lying exactly how I was, I simply picked him up, dropped him on the floor beside the bed, and went immediately back to sleep. I remember another occasion when I got a little unnerved by a mouse that wouldn’t leave my living quarters in the dank basement of one lodge. I eventually gave in to a peaceable coexistence. Camp life teaches nonchalance about the presence of creatures that most of civilization views as pests. Nowadays members of my family call me in panic whenever a bug is so rude as to venture inside our house and threaten our pristine living environment. I begrudgingly do my exterminator duty, but always with plenty of exaggerated eye-rolling. To be honest, I’m usually content to just let them be, just like I did back in camp days. That really drives my wife crazy.

ECONOMICS OF ABUNDANCE: “Make-do with what you have.”

Almost as familiar to summer camp as bugs are tight budgets. Lutheridge was no exception. We always  began the summer with a set number of craft items, sports equipment, maintenance tools, worship materials, etc. and had to make them last for nine (or was it ten?) whole weeks of hard livin’. If you went through too many of the bright colors of construction paper in the first week or so, all you had left at the end was brown, purple, and gray (I once suggested we do a Lent-in-August Week to use up all the ugly, boring colors, but strangely the idea never caught on). If something broke or went flat, you either learned how to jerry-rig it so it would work again, or you just came up with a different activity altogether. One time a guest Bible study leader was a little dissatisfied with the materials our area director had provided for her to use that morning in her session. “I needed two large pieces of posterboard,” she complained politely, “not one.” Knowing how tight the craft budget was, and how difficult it would be able to procure another whole sheet of the stuff, the area director held up the one she had, ripped it cleanly in two, and said, “Here. Now you have two.” The particular feature of Lutheridge that best exemplified this principle was the dilapidated yet just-functional-enough pick-up truck we used for general duty assignments around camp. Its deep electric blue paint color leant a certain energetic look that belied its engine tremor. It wasn’t technically road-worthy, and I swear parts of that tin bucket were held together with duct tape, but it got the job done. A hundred-fold. (And I would like to point out that I once "fixed" a friend's car with duct tape).

Care for a ride in my G.D. truck?
This type of frugality has influenced so much of my life that it is difficult to describe all the ways adequately. I suspect that in the corporate work world, supplies and equipment are generally easier to come by. Budgets in most businesses, by and large, have more wiggle room. If an employee needs something to help him function at a higher or more efficient level, it can be provided. In the non-profit world of summer camp, one learns to work with what little they have, and that has served me well (most of the time) in our family budget. Tinkering and fiddling with broken parts often must suffice for an all-out replacement. It breeds a healthy form of stewardship—and it does cause one to tap into their inner MacGuyver—but it also makes life a little more difficult sometimes. But you know what? At camp you learn that hours of fun can be had with a partially-inflated volleyball and a clothesline tied between two tree trunks. Or with just a partially-inflated volleyball, for that matter.

Family-style dining for every meal. That's a gilbert there at my left elbow.
NUTRITION FOR DUMMIES: “Eat whatever’s served you.”

The joke among the staff at Lutheridge was that guys lost weight while they worked there and the girls gained weight. Actually, there was a lot of truth to it. There is no greater contrast to the eating habits of a college student while they’re at college than when they’re at camp and have to eat three square meals a day after they’ve spent the day chasing kids across hilly terrain. I know I was rail-thin in those days, and I appreciated the way camp life kept me in shape, but the biggest lesson I learned was to be thankful for whatever food was placed in front of me. Prior to camp employment I was a fairly picky eater, but, as Garrison Keillor says, “Hunger makes the beans taste better.” I developed a taste for foods I never would have tried had I been somewhere else: Chicken a la King (it was served at least once on our ten-day menu rotation); mealy red apples (they were the fruit component in every single sack lunch for off-site field trips);  corndogs (hey, calories have to come from somewhere, right?). All of this was a lesson related to the economics class above. A life of true gratitude will never be borne of greed or condescension. You eventually learn to receive whatever cup is given to you, to pass it around the table so all can have a fair share, and to hope that when you come back to the next meal there might be something you really love, like maybe Boston Crème Pie. The ironic thing is that at Lutheridge I finally learned to like Chicken a la King and yet I’ve never encountered it anywhere since. But I bet I’d still be thankful if I did.

One cabin of middle school boys. Can you hang?
PHYSICS OF MOTION: “Objects are almost never at rest.”

For most people, college and graduate school require some familiarity with a transient lifestyle, but neither of them can compare to the constant motion of working at a summer camp. Every week you get marching orders to a new cabin, a new assignment. Sometimes you live on a trail or out of a canoe. Personal items are schlepped back and forth between car and bunk bed and shower-house on a near daily basis. Cleaning laundry is squeezed between camper bedtime and your own, or perhaps in the all-too-brief window of free-time on the weekends. Your automobile—if you have one—becomes the only permanent living space of the summer. As a result, things accumulate there and never really disappear. I’d like to think I learned at camp to live with fewer possessions and to keep better track of the ones I do have.  It certainly presented this opportunity. This is a good life lesson, and one that camp living is certainly not alone in teaching. Before I purchase something, a little voice in the back of my head asks, “Do you want to be carrying this around all the time?” Unfortunately, this lifestyle burned a bad mark on me, too. In so many ways I am still partially living out of my car. This has been somewhat problematic, especially when I need to transport passengers. I end up having to shift the clutter to the trunk or the floorboard while they wait patiently by the car door. One bright side: I think at any given time during the past twenty years I have been able to locate a complete change of clothes somewhere in the confines of my car.

You will never forget a week with mentally-challenged campers.
TIME MANAGEMENT BASICS: “Every minute counts”

During my first summer orientation twenty years ago, the acting director pressed this notion into our heads like a red-hot brand: these campers do not pay to come here and sit around. This director emphasized over and over that we, the counselors, were the key to their having a good time, the catalysts to the deepening of their faith, their tour guides to the great outdoors. Every minute, therefore, was to be filled with some kind of activity, even it was mindless, silly singing ("When days are hot, when days are cold, in the swimming pool!"). Waiting for the dining hall to open or the lifeguard to summon the kids to the water were no excuses for taking a break and ignoring our charges. Not all camps, I now realize, were that high-energy. There is something to be said for down-time (which Lutheridge had, too). However, too much unstructured time also allowed homesickness or mischief to take root in some kids. I learned pretty quickly that those things were worth avoiding at almost any cost. What rubbed off on me in this time management course was the habit of seizing every opportunity to point out something interesting in the surroundings, to make small-talk, to exercise the brain or the body however possible. This can be applied to life in general. I still appreciate the occasional chance to sit around and do nothing, but overall I’ve really been thankful for the ways those camp supervisors taught me to squeeze as much fun or work into a day as possible. After all, it is a day that the LORD has made. We are to rejoice and be glad in it. There’s really nothing passive about that at all.

Cabin signs were supposed to be as welcoming as possible
INTRO TO PSYCHOLOGY: “A crash course in human nature.”

Every week in a summer camp environment is like the beginning of a whole new world. Staff members are switched around to work different areas. People assume fresh duties. New campers arrive. Cabin communities are formed. Bonding occurs. And so does fighting and miscommunication, jealousy and betrayal. The stereotype of summer camps, I suspect, is that everyone is having a great time making new friends, developing summer romances and the like, all in the serene outdoors. The reality is that an awful lot of conflict, clannishness, and claustrophobia can occur. I keenly remember one cabin of middle school boys who ganged up on one of their own. One night while I was fast asleep, they passed around a cup, urinated in it, and then poured it on his sleeping bag. As their counselor, I was mortified and extremely angry. I tried and tried to get them to get along that week, to apologize to the poor victim and treat him better, but no matter what approach I tried, they resisted and rebelled. I eventually learned that sometimes humans just don’t naturally mesh with each other. Healthy community cannot be summarily imposed from above with an iron fist or even by pleading. All an effective leader knows she or he can do is to nurture or cultivate a sense of community by modeling kind behavior and rewarding positive actions. We can point the way in speech and gentle discipline and set up some basic boundaries. We can listen attentively and practice compassion. We can be on guard against gossip, which, I learned several times, does immeasurable harm. The rest—the real congealing of human relationships—must be left up to what we religious folks call the Holy Spirit. And loads of grace.

THEOLOGY MASTER CLASS: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10

The best “life skills” offered through a job at summer camp end up being the very ones that most people apply to the job to experience in the first place. They want to serve God and grow in faith by living in community in an outdoor setting that is intentionally centered on Christ’s teachings. This certainly occurs, of course. But the extent to which it occurs is humbling and mind-boggling. As long as you leave yourself open to it, working as a camp counselor teaches you that God is far more active in the lives of his people than you’d ever imagine. I think the lessons in this particular course go deeper and reach farther than any of the others I’ve already mentioned. Each week, each day is crammed with chances to admire God’s creation up close. And to begin and end the day with Scripture. Or watch people overcome their fears. Broker peace between warring cabin-mates. Muster sympathy for the ostracized bully. Nurture the homesick camper.  Recite a prayer in unison with one hundred muddy-faced creek-walkers. Sing a capella. Witness the Spirit miraculously pull together a Vespers service when you’ve spent all your planning time at the nurse’s station. Observe first-hand that confirmation pastors are people, too. Wrestle with your vocation. Open someone’s eyes to Jesus’ presence. Have your own eyes opened to Jesus’ presence in them. Slog through a whole week of Good Fridays with a troubled camper but then glimpse an Easter in him before it ends. Learn your limitations. Discover new gifts. Let people down. Be forgiven. Fall into bed. Say prayers. Go to sleep. And by the grace of God—always, by the grace of God—get up and try it all again for another full day.

Staff rejoice on Friday nights at their next week's assignments
Is there a better way to gain perspective on this whole life we’re given and learn to value God’s many mercies? I’m sure there is. In fact, I’m sure there are many. But this setting was the one afforded to me, thanks to the commitment of a very forward-thinking third-grader. Now I can see how these summer camp lessons formed and shaped me more than I realized at the time. I may wish every now and then that I paid a little more attention to the weather forecast, and I know I owe it to my family to go ahead and outright fix things around the house, but on the whole I still believe that the outcomes of these lessons have been more good than bad. The education I received among those forested hills eventually prepared me to be a pastor and to have a family. For that, and so much more, I give God thanks...when days are hot and when days are cold.