As I lay awake at midnight trying to use music to drown out the banshee-like screeching of a preteeen girl downstairs, it was hard not to question my decision to spend two months working at a summer camp. I hadn’t thought much of the yells when they first started, but two hours later I was out of patience.
“If I fall asleep right now, I’ll get six-and-a-half hours of sleep,” I thought. But the shrieks of “I hate you! Why are you making me stay here?” proved that even that amount was too unrealistic a goal.
A few minutes later, my roommate collapsed on her bed with a shell-shocked expression and explained that one of the campers had been feeling homesick and was allowed to make a phone call. She had seized the opportunity to demand that her mother take her home, and became apoplectic with rage when her mom explained that she, in fact, could not leave work and drive several hours to Tahoe.
Although this specific disaster was a new development, that night was unfortunately not unusual. What with injuries, strange noises in the forest, and incompetent counselors, there was rarely a day without at least one calamity. In fact, we on staff considered ourselves accomplished if we made it through the day with fewer than five of us threatening to quit.
Yet, year after year, we all keep coming back. A sappy line from “Home,” by Phillip Phillips, became the anthem of our summer: “Just know you’re not alone/ ‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home.”
The first week after I left camp, my phone was flooded with nostalgic photos and complaints about the horrors of returning to real life from my friends on staff. The camp love borders on fanatic sometimes. One person I know wants a tattoo of the camp logo—which consists of a wave, tree, mountain, moon, and sun—tattooed on his chest, so that the sun is his nipple.
Despite its difficulties, camp was special to everyone I worked with.
There was how comfortable we were with each other—people were open almost to a fault, and one girl joked about the difficulty of relearning how to filter what she said when she was back among normal people. There were the nights when we stayed up until midnight eating cereal in the kitchen and finally made our way upstairs to go to bed, only to find ourselves talking for another hour in the hallway.
And, even more important than the friendships we made on staff, were the comments from the campers every week. There was a homeschooled boy who didn’t have a single friend outside of camp, who begged us to kidnap him and keep him for the whole summer. There was a 15-year-old who said camp was the only place he wasn’t made fun of for being bisexual. There were dozens of kids coming from dysfunctional homes for whom camp was their one week of peace each year.
So, yes, I spent much of the summer feeling sleep-deprived, stressed out and frustrated. But everyone who worked there felt that they were really doing something good—that they were passing on the good that had been done for them when they were campers. The various catastrophes ended up turning into good stories, and the happier moments really did make summer camp feel like home.