In a camp experience that keeps on giving, my husband and his brother frequently talk about the summer they went away to sleepover camp. They say they hated it. Their mother claims they loved it. They argue about it regularly at family holiday meals.
My own children went to over-night camp sponsored by our local Y. The camp is in Michigan and they all loved it, starting the summer after third grade until we ran out of money and could no longer afford to send them. (Once again, the youngest child gets ripped off, with only two years of camp under his belt. Sadly, we won't be able to afford his therapy bills, either.)
One year when I was a kid, I decided that I wanted to go away for two weeks to Camp Metamora in Michigan with my Girl Scout troop. Unfortunately, I announced this to my parents the day before the final payment was due in full. I don't remember how much it was, but from the look on my mom's face, it must have been astronomical.
Ever-practical, my mother said that, while she appreciated my desire to go away to summer camp, it was a big expense that we had not planned for. If they allowed me to go to sleep-away camp, the rest of the family would have to give up any form of summer vacation and that wouldn't be fair. I pouted. "But," she said, "If you really want to go, you can start saving up your money now for next summer and if you can save up half, Daddy and I will pay the other half." I wish I had that kind of parental discipline with my kids.
Camp Metamora never happened, but not because I couldn't save up the money. All my friends who went that year hated it. It rained, it was cold, the food was bad, there were bugs. They hated it.
While my more well-to-do friends suffered through overnight camp, I went to a Girl Scout day camp that involved a 40-minute bus ride each way. I don't remember where it was, but I do remember that we rode past a big cemetery and all lifted our feet off the floor of the bus when we passed so the dead souls couldn't get us. The girls were from in and around the greater Detroit-metropolitan area and all were new to me.
I loved that camp. I remember one girl in particular, Judy Martin, was very nice, and her mom was one of the leaders. We made s'mores and god's eyes and lanyards. We played Red Rover and sang camp songs. We hiked and played on the playground. But the best part of day camp for me was the bus ride.
A tiny African American girl sat on the seat across from me the first day. I later found out that her name was Selena McGee, but for the first three days she just stared at me. I had very blond hair at the time, and when she finally got up the courage to talk, she asked if my hair was made of real gold and if she could touch it. From that day on, Selena spent all our time on the bus playing with my hair — brushing it, styling it and, long before Bo Derek, putting it in corn rows. It was like have my own personal stylist aboard a mobile beauty parlor.
This year, for the first time, I'm teaching a creative writing camp for 7-11 year olds through our city's Cultural Arts Program. It's an afternoon-only day camp and I have eight campers, all girls. In the grown up writing world, this would be called a writing retreat and it would cost a fortune.
Just like my childhood day camp, we play games, sing songs, and make crafts. Only the games we play are improv or story-based games; and the crafts we do include making our own journals, decorating book bags, and writing letters with feather quills. We also write poems, pick a word of the day, and take weekly walking field trips to the library and beach. My brother calls it Geek Camp. I call it a blast. The camp combines all my favorite things — writing, teaching, books and kids (who go home at the end of the day).
I remind my writers, as we head to the library or beach or playground, to use all their five senses. When we get back, we try to write down five sensory details that we noticed along the way. We talk about what it means to be a writer:
- writers write
- writers support each other
- writers ask questions
- writers pay attention to details
- writers read
"I like the main character's name."
"I like the detail of the fluffy pillow right in the middle of her bed."
"I like that I could almost smell her birthday cake baking."
"I wish I knew more about her two best friends."
We use this method of critiquing because writers support each other. We choose a word of the day that is new to most of us, because writers ask questions. We note our delicious details in our journals, because writers pay attention.
And each day, I read aloud to them, because writers read. On Friday, we finished our first read aloud, called A Beginning, a Muddle and an End by Avi, a book full of plays on words and serious ideas about the writing process. I hadn't read this book in a long time, and was delighted to rediscover one of my favorite bits of writerly advice. Edward the Ant tells his would-be author friend that if he wants to attract readers, then he shouldn't write writing, he should write reading. Brilliant. I wish I had written it.
Below is a silly Dr. Demento animation of Allan Sherman's camp classic, Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah. After you watch it, click here and leave a comment about your own camp experiences.
Photo credit: roasting marshmallows by jenny.nash712 via a Creative Commons license.