ODE TO SUMMER CAMP.

Moonrise Kingdom.

Some of the very best times of my life, I’ve had at summer camp.

Whenever I meet someone who never had a beloved, overnight, letter-writing, care-package-filled, horseback-riding, sunburn-getting, friendship bracelet-making summer camp home, I feel the urge to pat their shoulder and say, “bless your little heart.” I just want to take them back in time to when they were 12 years old, and give them the rich experience that cruel fate stole from them.

In my case, it took me a while to find the right camp. I’m an only child, you see. Very particular, very attached to my parents. My first two summer camps were disasters, always ending in tears and angry red mosquito bites. One camp, ironically named “Girl Scouts: Utopia” (that’s Utopia, Texas) compelled me to send desperate letters back home to my Mom, with pictures scrawled at the bottom of me and my stuffed animals waving, “HELP! Save us!!”  I hated that camp.

I became obsessed with attending Camp Longhorn for awhile, a semi-ritzy summer camp that all my rich friends went to. Lacking riches, my family had to pick a more affordable option for me. Something rustic. Something close by. Something all-girls?

The heavens parted and angels sang when I found it.

It was my third attempt at summer camp, and it would be a longer time away from home than I had ever spent. Two weeks! An eternity! But I was 11, and feeling, if not quite bold, then … grown-up. On the cusp of teenagerdome. Not a woman, but not a child anymore, either.

When I arrived at my cabin, things weren’t immediately promising.

“You know, you’re not as special as your parents think you are,” said Ashley, my one friend at this new camp that I had from back home. This, in response to my parents fussing over my bed, making sure it was made just so, with framed photos placed neatly in the window to remind me of home.

As you can imagine, “not special” is not a phrase only children hear often. So naturally, I burst into tears.

“She’s just jealous because she’s not as pretty as you,” said a NEW and BETTER friend in the cabin, my bunkmate.

Me? Pretty? No one at school had ever called me pretty.

Now, maybe it was because I won the sympathy vote early on. Maybe it was because my mom was going through a lip-sync performance phase, and packed me up with three of her “show wigs,” which proved extremely valuable at the camp Talent Show. Or maybe it was because I was finally away from school, where I was decidedly uncool.

But here … I was cool.

Having no boys around certainly helped. Without them, we could choreograph awesome dance moves to Ace of Base wearing the afore-mentioned wigs. A girl in my cabin named Stacy was a competitive clog dancer, and had a routine she performed for us nightly to Wynonna Judd’s “No One Else on Earth,” complete with cheerful “yeah’s!” and “uh-huh’s!” from Stacy’s mouth at appropriate song intervals. You think that dance routine would have flown with boys around? NO.

I went to this same camp for several years, and some of my proudest, most show-offy moments happened there. I learned how to horseback ride, and performed in the Wimberley 4th of July Rodeo one year, doing that little drill routine they do at the beginning of rodeos, with flags and horses making figure-8 formations and stuff. My horse, Ghost, didn’t have any sweat glands, so I had to hose him down after every practice. Unfortunately, Ghost got so overheated at the rodeo itself that he decided to simply sit down, mid-performance. While I was still on him. It was like he said, “you know what? F-k this,” and just took a seat.

I also got to play the part of Sandy in Grease at our end-of-session play/”water show” (imagine a play, happening around a pool, while 7-year-old synchronized swimmers splash around to song numbers inside the pool) resulting in a multiple-year obsession with the movie. That was only after years of putting in hard-won theater time, folks. My water show breakout role was Scuttle, the male, geriatric bird in The Little Mermaid.

But best of all, I got to be the camp Sing Song Leader one year, where I picked a song, and led a faction of girls in performing it at the final night of camp, a capella. It’s competitive, and your sing song team is one half of the whole camp, competing against the other half of the whole camp, to ultimately win glory for the whole camp session. You train them, kind of like a conductor. (I’m as mystified as you are as to how I assumed this role.) I think I picked a Jars of Clay song. Edgy, right?  Anyway, we won, and in the whooping shouts and hugs that followed, I clearly remember thinking: “Life just doesn’t get any better than this!”

I still remember camp songs, and I still remember writing letters home. I remember the sheer, unadulterated joy of receiving a care package, and I remember wondering if I liked girls. I remember sipping lemonade on a porch swing, and I remembered tubing in a pretty, sparkly river. I remember playing tapes in my cabin, and I remember braiding my friends’ hair as I hummed along.

Mostly though, I remember feeling like somebody, and I think that’s the magical thing that camp does for kids. Makes them feel different, like the things they couldn’t do back home and the people they couldn’t impress are suddenly attainable. Within reach. Like maybe they don’t need to change at all, actually, just their context. That with the right crowd, anything is possible.

I hope you’ve got a sunny store of summer camp memories too, wherever you are.

***

(By the way, my old camp still exists.)