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Around the Bend: Not every camper is a happy one

We dropped our 12-year-old off at summer camp last Sunday.
She was only too glad to get away from us, especially after her father started singing made-up camp songs in line during registration (mortifying her is one of his many talents; singing is not).
She’s at an age where we are no longer her favorite people to spend time with — or even be seen with, really. But to her, camp is more than an escape: She thinks it’s fun. I went to camp once, and let me tell you, she’s wrong.
My experience differed from hers in that I went to a figure-skating camp. Seriously. We stayed on the grounds of a standard summer camp in the woods but spent the afternoons at a nearby hockey rink, working on our flying camels. At least, most of the girls did. Apparently, when you go to figure-skating camp it is expected that you have either (a) the ability to skate or (b) an interest in learning how. I had neither.
I only went because a young friend of mine, an avid skater, wanted someone — anyone — to go with her. I liked the smell of insect repellent and had always wanted to try lanyard-making, so I figured I’d give it a try. It didn’t occur to me that a good chunk of time at figure-skating camp would be taken up with figure skating.
By the end of the first lesson, it became clear that I was not in the same league as the rest of the girls, who wore fancy skirted leotards and could actually get both skates off the ice at the same time. I also had an aversion to falling, so I mostly clung to the boards and skittered around the rink that way.
As a non-athlete, I found an ingenious method of coping with my lack of skill on the ice: Fake an ankle injury or stomach ache each day and sit in the bleachers, freezing, until we were bused back to camp. Admittedly, it hindered my development as a skater; after two weeks, I was nowhere close to being able to manage even a figure 8 (I nailed the figure 11, though).
I quickly discovered the highs and lows of the rest of summer camp. The highs were the Cap’n Crunch for breakfast and canteen — a camp word for “junk food store” — every other night.
The lows were the grueling tasks and emotional cruelty imposed upon us as campers: forced marches on nature trails, kickball, the swim test. It was hell. Every day I prayed for rain so we could at least spend the morning in the arts-and-crafts barn and not out proving/embarrassing ourselves on the basketball court or the lake.
I don’t get why summer camp directors have this sadistic need to make children Try New Things. At age 10, I was quite happy with the things I already could do well — read and watch TV — and all this outdoor self-improvement and compulsory participation in competitive sports added unnecessary stress to what could have been a good time spent guzzling soda and gnawing on Tootsie Pops.
Even from the perspective of the relaxed, socially well-adjusted kind of gal I am now (where “well-adjusted” means not bursting into tears when faced with a room full of strangers at a party), taking my daughter to camp brought back all the anxieties that had plagued me when I was younger. Just reading the list of optional activities at her camp registration caused the fake twinge in my ankle to return after 34 years in remission.
While I limped through the check-in line, my daughter eagerly signed up for dance, archery and the dreaded ropes course (yet another character-building camp adventure that I had once narrowly avoided with a preemptive trip to the nurse’s cabin). Unlike me, she seems to think of camp as an annual opportunity to hang out with friends, acquire new skills and have a good time, with the bonus that she is miles away from the humiliating presence of her father and me.
As I recall, the end of my camp stay couldn’t come soon enough. My daughter, however, will be sad to leave the camaraderie, traditions and activities of camp life. On the other hand, she’ll also be exhausted and — in spite of herself — happy to see us again.
Until her dad starts singing during checkout, anyway.

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