Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Happy Camper - Part 1 - Counselors

For my 40th birthday (next month) Mrs. Director graciously gave me a gift of allowing me to go away to camp for half of June to be a camp counselor. She is basically humoring my mid-life crises by allowing me to re-live some memories from my childhood and early adulthood. I am returning to the same camp I went to from 1980-1986 as a camper, Counselor in Training (CIT), and fresh-faced 18 year-old counselor. The next couple of weeks I will list my thoughts and observations on what the camping process has become during my absence of 22 years.

What is Summer Camp?
For those of you who didn’t go to camp, the movie “Meatballs” with Bill Murray actually captures a lot iof it. Camp is a chance for kids to get away from parents, learn independence, learn new skills and have a lot of goofy fun. The camp I go to is a sports-oriented, boys-only camp, concentrating on goals and achievement to build a kid’s self-worth and confidence. Activities include archery, canoeing, swimming, horseback riding, riflery, rock climbing, hiking, tennis, team sports, and about a dozen other activities. Boys aged 6-15 (they become CITs at 16-17) are running around from first bugle at 7am until Taps at 10pm. My camp is Christian oriented, but not religious, with “thoughts for the day” and non-denominational chapel services on Sundays. Character building, making friends, and interacting in a group environment are also big parts of the camp process.

The camp I am at has been around for nearly 100 years and is one of the more prestigious camps in the Southwest. When I was here both the Texas governor and U.S. Senator Phil Gram sent their boys here (and I had a chance to meet both on parent’s day).

Section 1 – Camp Counselors
The Camp Counselors are the people who “teach” camp – whether it is an individual skill like archery, or the person who takes the cabin of kids around to their daily activities.

My camp’s yearbooks from the late 1940s show that the average counselor was in his 30s and in the teaching or training profession. Couches, teachers, and even instructors from colleges like Texas A&M made up the bulk of the staff. They were actually real adults with real experience teaching and coaching young people.

By the time I was a camper the average counselor age had dropped to 21, with the average counselor being a U.S. college student on summer break or on the gap between college and the real world. Counselor retention each year was over 50%, with a very large portion of the staff being former campers, so the culture, history and institutional memory of the camp was constant year after year. When the staff showed up at the beginning of summer everyone pretty much knew each other, the various activities, and how the camp operated. “Orientation” lasted a day or two and was basically just time to get the cabins and activities ready.

These days summer camps can’t get many U.S. college kids to be counselors. The general feedback from the camp’s full-time staff is that U.S. students are too self-absorbed to bother being a counselor (“narcissistic” was the word actually used). College kids don’t want to work at all during the summer, much less a summer camp where they have to give themselves to others. College age students who might be interested have other commitments, too much pressure to do an internship, or want a job that puts something more “real world” in their resume.

The result is that these days summer camps import college students from English-speaking countries overseas. Orientation now consists of nearly two weeks teaching a bunch of Australians, New Zealanders, English, Scotch and the like what camp is all about. The average age of these counselors is 19, and most of them are here for just one summer to see America and do something a little different. These counselors largely don’t come back the following summer, making the institutional memory of the camp nearly zero, requiring training of a whole new bunch the following summer.

This process makes me something of an oddity since I am a former camper and counselor, and at 40 one of the “old men” at camp. I spin tales of the “old days” and the various personalities and pranks that happened way back when. Surprisingly, I find that I am in better shape than about 80% of these boys half my age - the Anglosphere is definitely catching up to the U.S. on its eating and exercise habits – but some of the guys will make good counselors. There are several very serious rock climbers, archers, equestrians and athletes in the group who will definitely help the boys under their tutelage. Because of overseas gun laws, very few of them have fired a gun, so manning riflery is a little tough.

As for giving, I’ll go with the camp director, who states that they really don’t care about the kids, but rather to have fun, see America, and tried to get laid. I suppose there is nothing wrong with those goals in a 19 year old kid, but the question is do you want them to be your kid’s camp counselor?

Next Post: How Lawyers Are Messing Up Summer Camp

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