Whether your kids are spending the sweltering summer days in Maine or Wisconsin or just down the road, summer camp may not be the hub of youthful adventure and camp tradition that you’d hoped. Seth Stevenson recounts his days as a camper in Massachusetts, which included a lot less “Kumbaya” and a lot more tough love than you would expect. Less than a decade later, however, he was singing a different tune when he worked as a summer camp counselor in Maine. His 2006 essay is printed below.
Summer camp isn’t really for the campers. Bless their hearts, they’re mostly just hoping to get back home with no broken bones or major emotional traumas. No, camp is for the counselors, who, after all, are there by choice, get paid, frequently snog the other counselors, and basically ride a serotonin high all summer long.
I first realized this truth as a 12-year-old, floating in the center of a lake in western Massachusetts. It is a windless day, and my 8-foot sailing dinghy is perfectly still, save for a gentle rocking. The sun roasts down through my orange life preserver. In the distance, across an expanse of calm water, I hear a speedboat roaring to life.
It’s the sailing counselors. They’re headed directly for me. This can only be bad.
As their speedboat chops smoothly across the water toward me, the girl counselor lifts a bullhorn to her mouth and pulls the trigger. “Capsize drill!” she shouts, with a squawk of metal distortion. As she lowers the bullhorn she breaks into a giggle. The boy counselor stands at the helm with his T-shirt off, revealing his crenelated abs. He slams the throttle forward and pilots the boat on a graceful arc—carefully designed to throw maximum wake into the side of my dinghy. A thick wave rolls off their bow, gathers itself, crashes over my gunwales, and swamps my tiny craft.
Over we go. The groaning of ropes and wood. A gasp as I plunge into freezing water. Then darkness, as the sail flops down on my head and drives me below the surface. I scramble and kick to daylight. I can hear the counselors whooping with glee. And I think to myself, through the shivering and the coughing up of lake water: I want so very much to be them.
As a camper—dropped off at a cluster of cabins somewhere in the Berkshires, or northern Maine, or the wilds of Wisconsin—you dream that the four (or, shudder, eight) weeks of camp will be a visit to a better world. A world where every kid is friends with every other kid, and whatever pigeonhole you’ve been stuck in at school is no longer there to hem you in. Of course, it never works that way. The laws of tween society pertain. Cliques form instantly. It’s no easier to talk to that girl in your archery session than it was to talk to that girl in your social studies class, and neither of them will ever know your name. Soon enough, you long to escape through those wooden gates at the camp’s entrance.
But the counselors? They face none of these worries. They really do arrive at camp to find a perfect Eden—hidden away from the rest of the world—where the rules are different and life is better. I didn’t fully understand this side of the equation until one summer during college when, lacking any better employment opportunities, I went up to Maine to be a counselor at a coed sleep-away camp on a small lake.
I was the sailing counselor, of course. All that time on the water as a kid had paid off. I spent my summer sprawled out on the speedboat, tending my suntan. When I got bored, I would motor over to a kid’s dinghy and forcibly capsize it. I’d watch the kid emerge sopping from the lake and then speed away while he was left to bail out his boat with a plastic bucket. (Believe me, this was not sadism. To become good sailors, those kids really did need to practice capsizing safely. While being laughed at.)
And the skinny-dipping wasn’t even the best part of the job. (Though it’s the part people always want to hear about.) No, the best part was the limitless power over the campers. Not so much the power to plunge them into the freezing lake whenever it so pleased me, but rather the power to shape these kids’ entire conceptual framework.
If you are a young-ish counselor who is even moderately good-looking, athletic, or funny, you have the ability to define “cool” for your campers any way you see fit. I mostly used this power for good (“Hey, it’s not cool to run on the dock”), while others had less noble ends (“Hey, it’s really cool to give your counselor all the best food from your care package”). The ultimate goal, though, which I found I shared with many of the other good-hearted counselors at my camp, was to bring to life that beautiful, age-old fantasy: the one in which a summer at camp becomes a visit to a better, kinder, fairer world than the one back home.
I tried to accomplish this by declaring the shy kids “cool” within earshot of the actually cool kids. By breaking up cliques before they could start. By acting like a mensch as best I could and hoping it might rub off.
Some of the kids started to dress just like me and carefully emulate my speech patterns, yet would fail to pick up on any of my behavioral cues. A few kids, though, started to buy what I was selling. They’d break up cliques on their own, and they’d take the shy kids under their wings. When I saw small triumphs like this, I felt like Gandhi and John Lennon rolled into one. It was a soul-thrilling feeling. It’s this feeling, I think, that brings some counselors back to camp summer after summer—despite piddling pay and sharing a bathroom with a bunch of 10-year-old boys.
I remember the first time I got a night off that summer in Maine. A group of us counselors drove out to the one little pub in town, and we got drunk and played pool all night, relishing our time away from the kiddies. It was fun. But we soon realized we weren’t Gandhi in that pub. We weren’t magically more cool and attractive. We weren’t shaping anybody’s universe for the better.
After that, on our nights off we mostly just sat on the empty dock in the moonlight, our bare feet dangling in the water. Or sometimes we’d smoke a joint off in the woods somewhere and sing camp songs. We never wanted to go beyond those wooden gates at the camp’s entrance.
Seth Stevenson is a writer for Slate.