In writing about preparing kids for residential camp this month, I couldn’t help but reflect on own my experience. I think I did a fair job of preparing my kid for camp. And yet, his experience and mine were vastly different. Yes, I got recommendations from friends. I even called the camp director and peppered her with questions about how the week would unfold. But, as with most of parenting, there’s some stuff you simply can’t anticipate. I did my best to describe my first summer away from home.
I went off to sleep-away camp during my fifth-grade summer. At that time, my family lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico and my best friend, Kristy Moore, had already spent a week Ghost Ranch. When Kristy described the hikes they took, and how some kids actually got to sleep in tee-pees, I didn’t have to think twice. I was in. My mother must have thought it would do me good too, because the next thing I knew, we were driving north through the Sangre de Cristo mountains one June morning, into the high desert landscape of northern New Mexico.
I’d never spent any time away from home, had never been camping before. I was definitely a newby. But it didn’t matter. My curiosity, coupled with my ease at making friends quickly made me feel comfortable in this foreign place.
What wasn’t to like? I rode horses out on the mesa, hiked into rocky canyons, took nature walks through piñon-scented forests, and met a lot of other kids like me. At night, under a sky bright with stars, the counselors sang and played guitars around a crackling fire. Not once did I miss my pesky little brothers. There was too much exploring to do here, too much to keep me from pining for home.
At the end of the week, just to make sure we didn’t forget Mother Nature’s contribution to this magical place, a thunderstorm swept in off the mesa. As storms often do in the desert Southwest, it dumped so much rain in a brief period of time that it caused a flash flood, swelling the little creek that ran beside the camp into a torrent. We watched in awe as chocolaty water rushed past us, grabbing tree limbs and debris in its race down the mountain. That scene provided a dramatic ending to a memorable week.
On Saturday, with the last of the good-byes made, I finally caught sight of my mother’s Volkswagen Beetle bouncing down the rutted gravel road, a red dust plume trailing behind her. I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I was excited to see her and my brothers again, and couldn’t wait to tell them about my week. Yes, we were returning to the hum-drum suburbs of city life, but I had a suitcase full of memories.
So I thought the camp experience would be a good one for my son as well. When he turned 10, I signed him up for a residential camp that came highly recommended by a friend whose daughter went each summer. I did my best to answer all of his questions, describing what I thought his time would be like. But as an only child, he is a bit of a worrier. He had never shared a room before, and he wasn’t used to the rough and tumble nature of boys on the loose.
Much to my surprise, he came down with a terrible case of homesickness during the first week. His dad went up for a visit that weekend and had to wrestle with the decision of leaving him there to tough it out. But to his credit, he did. Driving away while leaving behind a woefully unhappy little camper was one of the toughest things he says he’s ever had to do.
Low-and-behold, by the time I arrived the following week to retrieve him, my kid was all sunshine and light. He gave me the grand tour, showing me where they shot rifles, and telling me how much he enjoyed learning how to ride a horse. He sounded for all the world like he owned the place. I was as surprised by his recovery as I had been to learn of his demise.
So what’s the lesson here? Sometimes you’ve got to take a chance. Consider your kid, recognize that camp won’t be for everyone, but you won’t know until you try. You can ask all the questions you want but in the final analysis, there are no guarantees in life. Sometimes you just have to take the plunge.