What I Learned at Camp

By Linda DeMers Hummel

There are decisions you make in life when you’re in a good mood. This was one of them.

At the end of a triumphant first year of teaching school, I accepted an offer to work at a summer camp in the Berkshires. My boyfriend took a job there, too. We dreamed of wholesome fun in the rolling countryside of Connecticut. We thought of it as a summer off – rustic log cabins, fresh mountain air – trust falls, color wars.

Doubt arrived as the first campers jumped out of their parents’ station wagons and began screaming and hugging each other. It was noisy. It was crowded. There was running and jumping everywhere. I was one of the few counselors they hadn’t known since second grade. They were wary. And who knew the Berkshires sun could be so blazing at 9 am?

Here’s the thing. I had never been to camp. I had never even been at a camp. I had never been in charge of 13-year-old girls. I didn’t know that 13-year-olds would bear no resemblance to the 11-year-olds in my fifth grade class back in New York, the ones who spent a whole year thinking I was mildly cool. I didn’t know that everything in a camp is half a mile away from the next thing in a camp. Trails were dusty and hilly. Mice ran across the floor of the platform tent where I slept. I hate mice.

Whoever built this camp knew a few things about hormones and had the foresight to put the girls and boys sections as geographically inconvenient to each other as humanly possible. The only time I got to see my boyfriend was at meals. We’d look at each other from our respective tables, across a cavernous room throbbing with camp songs, the lyrics of which I didn’t know. I never caught on to the ten minutes or so of rhythmic table slamming and chants that sailed back and forth after dinner every night about who had spirit. Clearly, spirit was not in my repertoire.

My one day off a week was consumed by hours at the Laundromat trying to get the campfire smell out of my clothes and cataloging the new names I was being called behind my back by adolescent campers. My boyfriend, on the other hand, found out that waterfront games of trying to upend canoes was much more fun than being a graduate student. A week in, he announced he wanted to come back the next year.

So the problem wasn’t camp. It was me.

Not willing to take one more campfire filled with chatter and singing, one more clique-fueled battle with teenage girls in tears, one more hour-long staff meeting when I’d rather be washing a cat, I bailed out of the job after the first 4-week session. I’m all for being out of my comfort zone once in a while, but after four weeks of being a camp counselor, I was out of my mind. My leaving was – as they say in the medical business – prophylactic.

My supervisor insisted on putting my evaluation in writing even as I was packing my things and sobbing out of embarrassment and shame for not seeing the summer through. Her comment at the bottom of the page remains one of the truest sentences ever written about me: “Linda’s personality is not in synch with the intensity of the camp experience.”

In all the years since, I’ve realized that camp was only the first indication that I am not cut out for large groups of anything. I am fine at cocktail parties, but they are work for me, and though it sounds ridiculous to count them as “accomplishments,” I do. Volunteering for field trips when my kids were in school was an act of love. I will never know the joy of Black Friday that some people describe, and as much as I wanted to be part of the Women’s March on Washington this past January, I knew myself better.

I’m a person who comes home at the end of the day, takes a deep breath, and loves the idea that I don’t have to talk to another person until the morning. Being alone for part of Wednesday is what fuels me for Thursday.

Thanks to camp, I was able to make two life decisions. First, I knew at my core that I would never become a member of a cult. They usually have to eat in dining halls, too. And I believe there may be chanting involved. Maybe about spirit and who has more of it, but I’ll never know.

I also figured out that I’d completely fail in prison. I’ve heard it’s noisy and there is no privacy.

So, no surprise that you’ll never find me searching the internet for a group of tortured souls in Colorado who have found bliss by eating radishes for breakfast and worshiping Zeus. I’ll continue to stay on the sunny side of the law, too, just in case. All thanks to what I learned. At camp.

About this writer

  • Linda DeMers Hummel

    Linda DeMers Hummel

    Linda DeMers Hummel is a Baltimore-based writer who has recently completed a memoir, “I Haven’t Got All Day.” She spends a lot of time lately hoping to get good news from her agent.

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2 Responses to “What I Learned at Camp”

  1. DON USTLER says:

    As always Linda a great story . I presume we can count you out on any future camping trip !

  2. Linda O'Connell says:

    Linda, I smiled throughout while reading your essay. I taught pre-K for many years. The 8th grade teachers asked how i could even consider teaching at my grade level. I asked them the same about their choices. Some of us are cut out for noise and messes and some of us are in tuned to a different kind. Your funniest: “I’ll continue to stay on the side of the law.”

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