TBH, There's No Place Like Camp
"It's summer, Ryan. Everything changes."
Welcome back to *Cash Register Alert*, the newsletter about all things ‘90s and ‘00s nostalgia, named after the best sound on AOL Instant Messenger. I’ve been deep in my feelings for over a week thanks to one Ms. Taylor Alison Swift, so we might as well hit the rewind button to one of the most dramatic and emotional times of ‘90s/’00s childhood: SUMMER CAMP. If you’re new around here, get comfy in your inflatable chair and have some Dunkaroos handy — you’re gonna need ‘em. And if you haven’t yet subscribed (it’s free!), hit the button below so you don’t miss a single trip down the ‘90s and ‘00s rabbit hole.
To say I used to get excited about summer camp as a kid (and teenager) is quite the understatement. I pretty much lived my entire life for those 6-8 weeks of the year, counting down the days until school ended and camp began. Growing up in New York suburbia, there were a lot of camp options in the general tri-state area; some of my friends opted for sleepaway camp in the wilderness, while I attended a day camp not far from my hometown. I was seven years old when I began my camp journey, starting off my first summer feeling shy and unsure if I would even make any friends. By the end of that August, I had solidified several friendships that would endure for more than a decade, some of which are still going strong today.
Where the school year often felt constrained within various boundaries and structures — classes, work, social drama within cliques — summer camp was looser, and many of those walls faded away. That’s not to say that there wasn’t drama (oh, there was plenty), but I always felt so free, more confident, and arguably just so much more like myself. For example, there was absolutely no way September-through-June-me would have gotten up in front of the entire school with my friends to perform “Stop” by the Spice Girls — in full costume, no less (I was Posh Spice) — but camp me? She did it in a heartbeat.
^ Counting down to camp, from my 8th grade journal.
But camp wasn’t just about ~feelings~ because we learned some extremely specific skills, too.
Some of them were universally useful, like how to pitch a tent or make a fire, CPR, swimming lessons, and even cooking. Others, like how to start the box or cobra stitch, maybe not so much — but if you put two strands of neon lanyard in front of me today, you can bet I’m whipping up a shiny box keychain. It’s muscle memory at this point.
Other things that will forever be burned into my brain from camp? Extremely catchy yet equally annoying songs (the littlest worm! I ever saw! Was stuck inside! My soda straw!); the cheers from our annual camp Olympics; so many hand games (double double this this, double double that that); swim-time buddy checks; and the endless fictional rules we made up while playing sports.
Of course, the camp experience changes wildly when you go from camper to CIT.
While technically a job, being a CIT was definitely more about having fun with your friends, being awarded more freedom and responsibility, and, if you went to a camp like mine, the off-hours events for CITs only. To be sure, some of the best camp moments happened during weekly bowling leagues, trips to the local mall or movie theater, hitting the roller rink, or attending the end-of-summer teen banquet where All The Drama always went down. Take every ounce of emotions and dramatics of a middle school dance and multiply by a thousand — that only represents a fraction of the teen banquet dramz my friends and I experienced.
Part of the dramatics (OK, most) were because of *extremely Grease voice* summer lovin’. Let’s all agree on something here: summer camp crushes were just more intense than crushes that took place any other time of year. The highs were infinitely higher and the lows were so much lower. Sneaking off to a secluded part of camp to make out? Endless butterflies. Spotting your crush with their arm around another girl during bowling leagues? Elle-Woods-throwing-chocolate-at-the-TV level heartbreak.
Yet truthfully, there was no greater emotional day than the last day of camp.
Where the school year might crawl by at a snail’s pace, camp was a complete whirlwind. The last day was always full of tears, exchanging phone numbers and AIM screen names, and promises to hang out in the fall. Saying goodbye at the end of the summer was more than saying goodbye to camp itself or your friends — it was also saying goodbye to the part of yourself that flourished at camp, the part of yourself that might get quiet again come September, waiting to be found the following June.
Like anything else, there’s no one-size-fits-all summer camp experience. I asked some of my friends what they remember from their camp days; here’s what they said:
“Best memories: Making ice cream lasagna, Thursday overnights spent singing ‘Linger’ around the campfire, then walking to the tents in whispers.” —Jac
“Going to the roller rink and requesting ‘C'mon N' Ride It (The Train)’ to the DJ every week. Plus, the hours at summer camp were the only time I was ‘allowed’ to curse.” —Mike
“Shabbat! Singing songs, dancing in the amphitheater.” —Elana
“Flagpole morning ritual; songs and announcements.” —Maude
“The late night laughs and shenanigans in the dorms.” —Lexi
“Getting mail was huge. They’d distribute mail at meal times and it was a BIG deal to get a care package from home. We’d share snacks and whatever little activity kits or decorations we got from our families. When I was a little older, I got care packages from friends. One year, my two BFFs sent me a full cassette tape talking to me like I was there with them, and playing songs we loved while singing along.” —Roberta
The above memories are timeless: the roller rink, the mix tapes, lining up at the flagpole — they’re all hallmarks of what it meant to go to camp. As all former campers and counselors know, camp is forever a part of us — it’s shaped who we are as adults, in one way or another. My friend Kim put it like this: “Camp gave me a new kind of independence that I couldn’t get at home. I built strong friendships and relationships that stood the test of time. I learned to step way out of my comfort zone, and tried so many amazing new things.”
After all, that’s the ultimate gift that camp gave us: the friendships, the confidence, the pieces of ourselves we couldn’t find anywhere else. And, naturally, maybe a lanyard keychain or two (or a hundred) along the way.
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