Summer camp lessons [Commentary]

Summer camp beckons, giving children a much-need break from the rigors of school. At camp, children may explore nature and new interests away from the comfortable, familiar surroundings of home. This freedom to explore also extends to the adults who supervise the campers.

Each year, as the first fireflies appear and humidity drips from day into night, I fondly recall my years as a camp counselor: those long-lost days of swim lessons, Popsicle stick creations and "Capture the Flag" games. Oh, how simple life was when all you had to do was crush the kickball over the heads of 10-year-old boys who envied your power.

The role of camp counselor requires great skill. The trick, I see now, is learning how to straddle two worlds. In one, you are a super-sized child, called on to lead hikes, perform silly skits and cannonball into the pool. In the other, you are an adult, expected to make sure each child gets fed and hydrated and doesn't get bitten by too many mosquitoes.

Summer camp for the adults is like the woods in a Shakespearean comedy, where anything can happen. When the mind and body are free from the usual routines and constraints of daily life, the drama of summer camp inhabits every inch of the camp. Outside the view of campers, of course, are the daily turf battles, ego trips, supervisory slights, unjust assignments of chores and complaints about bad children. Among the worst indignities a counselor can suffer is being assigned early morning swim lessons, when the water remains cold from the night before, especially after it rains.

Ramen-noodle eating college students work alongside public and private school teachers eager to score extra pay, and conflicts predictably arise. Their ideologies toward discipline range from just short of corporal punishment to none at all. Their work is monotonous, the heat oppressive and the sun neverending. Yet these adults must find ways to cope with each other and their campers, whose parents employ just as diverse a range of parenting styles.

For parents, summer camp is a vacation from the responsibilities of child care for the day or week, and that should be enough. Yet many campers' parents believe, usually wrongly, that great improvements in their children can come during camp. I had parents ask me to correct their child's poor eating habits, lack of socialization skills or constant nose-picking, to name a few. Not so easy when most counselors consider it a successful day if their campers don't get lost in the woods or miss the all-important daily swim lessons.

To cope, counselors turn to one another, despite their differences, swapping stories about their individual campers, and not all complaints. Tommy swam backstroke; Elsa sang so well at the campfire — on and on they crow, just like parents.

Of course, other things happen in the woods of summer camp. Exactly 30 years ago, as a camp counselor at a now-defunct overnight camp in Glyndon, I fell in love with a camp nurse a few years my senior. Beautiful, blonde and way out of my league, I fell super hard. We sent each other notes, ensuring we each got mail at daily mail call. We stole glimpses and winked at each other at nightly camp-wide events. And every other night, when my assistant counselor stood watch over my group in our cabin, the nurse and I savored time away from the children. We watched a big meteor shower and the 1984 Summer Olympics, always making sure I returned to my cabin by the counselors' 11 p.m. curfew.

But summer camp must end, along with their associated romances. As we were saying our final goodbyes, the nurse told me about her "real" boyfriend, one I didn't know she had. For a long time, I licked my wounds, wondering what signs I missed. Only now can I see that summer camp's magic is confined to the woods, just like Shakespeare tells us.

My summer camp experiences, good and bad, played a crucial role in my development as a leader and my persona as "Crazy Uncle Bob," a nickname several of my 20 nieces and nephews bestowed upon me. Yes, they see flashes of Camp Counselor Bob. But what I see all these years later is that a job that required me to be both man and child ultimately helped me become a better person. I only hope this summer's crop of camp counselors uncovers just as valuable lessons about themselves.

Bob Graham is a former camp counselor, who now owns Bigger Pie Strategies, a small business marketing company. He can be reached at

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