“Why summer camp is actually terrible: a rebuttal” originally published in The Toronto Star, 19 July 2013.
A vague memory, from the veiled recesses of my psyche:
A lake. A cold lake. A freshwater body so ice-chilled one would be a lunatic to willingly bathe in it.
Me at 12. Spindly and spotted. Clad in swimming trunks, jostling amidst a few other boys clustered near the edge of a spare wooden dock. The day cloudy, wind brittle against my bare torso, tightening my skin into pimpled pink gooseflesh. Waves splashing against the wood, misting us with frigid glaze.
An older teen orders us in. I await my turn at the ladder. A nudge; could be accidental, more likely malicious. I am submerged in absolute zero liquid death. My heart stops.
This is not a nightmare. This is factual, one of many unwelcome reminiscences from 14 days of loneliness, better known as summer camp.
To those who dare espouse to me the age-old axiom that camp builds character, may I be allowed the pleasure of a rebuttal? For I dissent!
Camp builds character, oh yes. Camp also constructs towering bulwarks of resentment so enormous Joshua’s entire trumpet-wielding army could never hope to bring them tumbling down. Not even with a drummer and backup singers.
Three decades later, I’m still chipping away at the rocks.
Maybe other camps are different. Perhaps others genuinely enjoyed their time away from home as they slept outside, made macramé belts, and handled bows and arrows for no discernible reason.
Lest you believe me hopelessly citified, I have taken substantial pleasure in tenting in our spectacular Canadian wilderness, canoeing up to Hudson Bay, witnessing wild moose frolic about. I’m an adult now; I enjoy adult activities. But this enjoyment derives from willing participation. My parents did not drive over to my house and tell me they’ve signed me up to live in a leaky tent on the shores of Frostbite Lake.
I made that choice myself.
As a kid, however — admittedly an introspective, shy, spectacularly unpopular kid — summer camp held little appeal. I was confident that forcing me from my safe zone and plopping me alone and afraid in the backwoods was a recipe for unhappiness.
And from that recipe, I baked bundt cakes of bitterness upon which I feasted for years.
Was it the solitude? Was it the polar bear swims? Was it the enforced full daily hour of silent bible study and/or prayer? Can’t say they all didn’t make a heartily negative impact.
Let me lay a truth on parents hopeful that compulsory confinement intermingled with canoe lessons and children’s rounds will mould their offspring into upstanding members of society; if you remove an introverted boy from his surroundings and relocate him amongst an alien collection of children in the forest, that boy will not transmogrify himself into a productive component of the whole.
That is not how Lord of the Flies worked out, and who are you to say William Golding got it wrong?
Bill Murray is not going to take the boy under his wing. No schemes to foil the crusty camp head Harvey Atkin with the healing power of antics will be forthcoming. No burgeoning young love will be reciprocated.
That boy will remain ostracized throughout his incarceration, and he’ll be lucky to leave with his life.
I will not claim my situation typical. My siblings formed lifelong bonds with their bunkmates. Other Redekops are, fair to say, extroverts, natural-born leaders. In my family I am the odd one out, preferring solitude to parties, and books to conversation.
Happily, my parents learned from their mistake. They knew this gangly youngster would never become a camp counsellor, or even a Chris Makepeace. Their kid was going to fetal himself into a ball and hope the wounds wouldn’t leave scars.
Well, they did. Deep, crimson, psychological scars.
Thus I conclude my dissent. You may now resume normal recollections about sunsets and sleeping bags and the scent of pine in the morning.
Corey Redekop’s most recent novel, Husk, was published in 2012. Summer Camp, a series of author essays, appears every Saturday in Life.