Hello Mother, Hello Father–Memories of Overnight Camp

Alright readers, as promised in the last entry, now I will tell you about my experiences the three summers I went to an overnight camp for the blind. I didn’t exactly love overnight camp, and I will get to the reasons why in a moment. But this camp was definitely more true to the camp experiences my mom loved to recall from when she went to a church camp as a child, so I am so glad I got to have these experiences in my own childhood. On the third Sunday of July the summers after fourth, fifth and sixth grade, Mom and Dad helped me pack a suitcase, and then we drove three hours north to Lions Camp. The camp embodied many of the old fashioned characteristics of a camp, like the quiet nature setting, the dining hall, and the fact that all of the girls cabins were given tree names, and the boys cabins had names like the Explorers, or the Lumberjacks. Yet while the campsite was old fashioned in many ways, thankfully all of the cabins were air conditioned and had indoor plumbing! Everything on the campsite was also easily accessible for people with all kinds of disabilities since the whole purpose of this camp is to provide an old fashioned camp experience for children with disabilities. In addition to the two week camp for the blind (campers could choose whether they wanted to stay one week or both when registering, but one week was always enough for me), there was also a camp for deaf children, a camp for children with diabetes, and a camp for children with multiple disabilities. There may be other camps this site hosts, but those are the ones I remember hearing about. As much as I will complain about some of the aspects of camp, when I look back at my camp experience now with a more mature perspective, I realize that this camp really did do a wonderful job of creating the perfect good old fashioned camp experience that allowed us to just have fun and forget about the difficulties and disregard the rules both written and unwritten, that are imposed on us when we return to our ordinary lives, the same opportunity that keeps millions of sighted kids coming back to camp summer after summer.

I realized this a couple weeks ago when I happened to turn on National Public Radio, and they were doing a show about the fun and nostalgic memories of summer camp as a child. One thing the moderator of the show mentioned that really struck me was the fact that at camp, children can let lose and find joy in things that, once they get back to the reality of their school friends, they would see as stupid, and there were sure some of these instances in my own experience of camp. I mean, could you imagine the reaction you would receive if you invited school friends over, especially in middle school, to sit around a campfire and sing songs like “The other day, I saw a bear! A great big bear! Oh way out there!” But in the camp culture, it was perfectly acceptable to sing these songs, and sing them loud with genuine passion and laughter in our voices. At school when it is meal time, you are expected to sit down, behave, and wolf down your food so you can go back to class, and thus could never have silly shouted dialogue like this:

Maples: Hey willows!

Willows: What!

Maples: We wana hear you sing the Barny song!

Willows: No way!

Maples: We wana hear you sing the Barny song!

Willows: No way!

Maples: We wana hear you sing the Barny song!

Willows: Okay! I love you, you love me! We’re a happy family…

Cabins have also asked each other to sing other songs and even dance, making meals so much fun! Another thing you could do at camp that defied the rules of behavior we are so accustomed to at school was it was perfectly acceptable for children to playfully give adults a hard time! My favorite memory that demonstrates this was in my first year, when my vision teacher accompanied me to camp since she knew me well, and could be a support system if I got homesick or wasn’t handling camp well, something she feared might happen since I had never rally been away from home that long before. But actually, I really only would tear up and get homesick when I heard younger children crying at night, so maybe I was crying more because I felt bad for them. I must have been subconsciously homesick though because especially the first year, I would have weird dreams at night about coming home and finding the house completely different and with familiar furniture rearranged. But we really were kept busy most of the time, so I coped pretty well, and was actually getting to that age when it is kind of a thrill to be away from the parents. Anyway getting back to my story, one day, we were all eating lunch when my teacher inadvertently put her elbows on the table, and a table of teenagers with enough vision to see it brought her brief lapse in table manners to the attention of the whole hall with a rousing chant of “Kim, Kim, strong and able! Get your elbows off the table!” (name changed to protect the guilty) and then she had to take a walk of shame around the table as everyone sang “Round the table you must go, you must go, you must go! Round the table you must go, learn your manners!” When I have recalled that funny memory years later, she responds with a sigh, but if I could have seen her, I’m sure I would have seen a smile on her face in spite of herself.

Another silly camp tradition I always talked about with such excitement in the days leading up to camp that probably drove my parents crazy was the eager anticipation every morning at breakfast of finding out who had been paid a visit by Sneaky, and what fate he would bestow on them. I never saw for myself what Sneaky looked like because he never snuck up on me, but when my vision teacher described him, I think she said he was a stick figure man drawn on to a popsicle stick. But more importantly, if you got a visit from Sneaky, it either meant something really good, or something really bad! Sneaky was an equal opportunity sneak, and whoever has him last can sneak him in to the shoe or pocket of a camper or counselor who sneaks him to another victim by breakfast the next day. Once Sneaky’s victim for that day had been identified, the camp director would go up to a microphone and announce to a silent dining room sitting on the edge of their seats that Sneaky says this person committed a particular infraction. It was always a silly infraction, resulting in a silly punishment for one person or reward for another. I don’t even know if the infractions Sneaky accused his victims of were even true or if he was just being silly. One time for example, Sneaky accused a counselor of bringing deodorant on the annual tent campout night, an activity that was supposed to be about roughing it, so for their punishment, they couldn’t wear deodorant the rest of camp, or something silly like that. On another occasion, Sneaky accused another student, and a group of teenage friends he was with of not wearing life jackets when standing on the boat dock which is technically a pretty minor infraction since the water is pretty shallow under the dock if you did fall in, something I know firsthand because I trusted a low vision kid to do sighted guide with me on a dock once, and she misjudged how close I was to the edge. When I fell, I think the water only reached my waste, and while I think I got a couple bruises from banging against the edge of the dock as I fell, they were so minor, and I was so desperate not to miss any of the free swim time since it was a hot day that I refused medical attention in the health room for them. Now it’s one of those memories I cannot help laughing about every time it comes to mind. Anyway, for not wearing life jackets on the dock, I think Sneaky announced that after breakfast, these boys would have to stand on the dock wearing a whole bunch of life jackets at once so people walking by could laugh at how silly they looked.

In addition to this silly fun and giving each other a hard time, we also had a lot of fun doing the usual swimming, boating, art projects, archery (closely supervised by sighted staff of course), and even an annual evening hay ride through the woods where every year, the driver claimed there was something mysteriously wrong with the tractor because for some reason, it wouldn’t start unless we sang a song. Since I love to sing, the campfire, and this hay ride were probably my favorite memories of this camp, and in the case of the hay ride, I loved how we always ended up singing long after the tractor had started. My life has been blessed by countless joyous childhood memories that I would love to relive, but I think if I could choose one memory that I would love to relive most of all, I would have to say the utopian image of a whole bunch of kids riding through the woods, singing to our heart’s content without a care in the world as a cool evening breeze caresses our face and ruffles our hair, would be high on my list! In addition to all of these happy memories, looking back I realize that another thing I loved about these camps was that for the most part, they allowed me to almost forget that I was blind. The first year, I felt like my blindness stuck out a little more because I was placed in a cabin where everyone else met the legal criteria to be classified as blind, but could see pretty well when compared to me, a totally blind person, so they would often do visual activities together making me feel left out. I know that in my last entry, I mentioned how I always wanted to go to a normal camp for sighted children, and obviously in that kind of camp, all of my cabin mates would have been fully sighted and I would have experienced the same feelings. However, I went to a mainstream school, and had gotten used to feeling a little left out occasionally when in the company of fully sighted children. But I think that since this camp was advertised as a camp for the blind, I didn’t expect to have these feelings. But the following year, my parents requested that I be put in a cabin with other totally blind children, a wish that was granted so I felt like I could relate better with my cabin mates. While I am on that subject, I also liked how although there were some kids with cognitive disabilities at this camp, since this camp was for blind kids all over the state, I also had the opportunity to meet several people who were simply blind like me. I also loved the fact that most of the staff were not teachers of the blind, so I rarely felt like my independence was being judged. In the dining room all of the meals were cooked for us and the counselors always poured milk for all of us before we even had to ask. Most of the time, they were happy to do sighted guide, and when we did use our canes, it was pretty stress free because the walking areas of the camp were well maintained and it was perfectly acceptable to walk slow since the camp’s purpose was to foster a sense of leisure and fun, not urgency, which also meant of course, there were no busy streets to cross! I know some of you might be thinking the camp staff should have encouraged more independence, but the way I look at it, your independence is evaluated all school year by your teachers, and though my parents didn’t worry about my lack of confidence in cooking and using my cane since they knew I would develop this confidence when I was ready, I know there are some blind children whose parents set independence goals and spend all summer making their children practice independent walking and daily living skills. So is it really the end of the world to give children one week a year where they can escape reality and just be kids whose only goal is to make wonderful childhood memories? I am so glad that the camp staff seemed to agree with me.

So now that you have heard all of the silly camp traditions I loved and all of the happy memories and positive experiences I had, you are probably wondering why I mentioned at the beginning of the post that I didn’t exactly love this camp. Part of this displeasure was due to the simple fact that while I didn’t cry about being away from my parents, I longed for a bed where the mattress wasn’t hard as a rock and made of plastic, located in my own room where they weren’t five or six other girls snoring and talking in their sleep, or counselors coming back from staff meetings at all hours of the night and making noise as they got ready for bed. I longed for the freedom to get up when I wanted, and do what I wanted every day instead of every hour of the day being so structured. I longed for the nice organized drawers for my clean clothes and spacious hamper for my dirty clothes as opposed to having to figure out which clothes were clean or dirty in a cramped suitcase. There was a cabinet for each of the campers now that I think about it, but it was so small I couldn’t use it for all of my clothes and bathing items. I longed for a shower with nice spacious shelves for my soap and shampoo, and a door instead of a curtain I never could get to close all the way, and that always stuck to me since the showers were so small, so I never really felt clean. And while I wasn’t homesick in the sense that I couldn’t make it through the week and needed to get home to my parents, I longed for the chance to just call them on the phone, see how things were going at home and just rant for a couple minutes when I was exhausted or frustrated. But I didn’t have a cell phone back then, and even if I did, they weren’t allowed at camp and camp staff could only call parents if there was an emergency. At first, I rationalized that this inability to chat with my parents was giving me excellent practice for when I went to college and would be away at the dorm for months at a time. Little did I know of course that I would live in the dorm for less than a week, but even when I did live in the dorm, my parents could come and check on me every day, and if I had gone to school far away, I could call them any time. So in some ways, the separation from home was harder to handle at camp than in college. All of these inconveniences I can handle on short trips, but by the end of a whole week with these inconveniences, I was exhausted and more than ready to go home.

But more importantly, I might not have minded these inconveniences if that was the only source of frustration, but there was also the frustration of having to abide by stupid, stupid rules! For a case and point, let’s take the simple act of going swimming. At home, the process of going swimming involves quickly changing in to the swimsuit at home, driving ten minutes to the beach and heading straight from the car in to the water. And at camp, this process should have been even faster since getting to the lake was less than a two minute walk, right? Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple at camp. First, the counselors would take us all to this locked gate way earlier than when the swimming area was ready to open, and we all had to stand in line baking in the hot afternoon sun. In fact, one day when it was particularly hot, the usually peaceful well mannered crowd broke out in to chants of “Let us in! Let us in!” a chant which I too participated in, so an observer who didn’t realize they were on a camp ground probably would have thought they were witnessing an angry protest demonstration. Then, once the gate opened, we all had to choose a swimming buddy and once we got in the water, a whistle would blow every fifteen minutes and everyone had to stop what they were doing, stand with their buddies and raise their hands so everyone could be counted to assure that no one drowned. In addition, we all had to wear wrist bands and a staff member would tell us the same safety rules every day before we could get in the water, which basically were simple things like “don’t go in to a swimming area deeper than the one you were assigned to” which was based on your swimming ability which was tested on the first day of camp, and don’t do stupid things like dive off the dock in to the water or stuff like that. I understand the rationale and the need to be cautious because when I complained about this casually to my counselor one night when we were back in our cabins, she said how you have to take extra precautions because of the liability of caring for such a large group of kids. But for goodness sake, cannot you still be safe and cautious without having to make the simple process of going swimming complicated! But when I got home from camp, my mom said they had to do all of these safety precautions when she was at camp too, so I guess that is just standard camp procedure. But there were also other stupid and I thought arbitrary rules that didn’t have the rationale of safety behind them. Every night at home, I have to read before I can relax and fall asleep. But until the light were turned out at camp, there were always kids talking or walking around making it difficult to concentrate on a book. But that was no problem because I was totally blind so I would just read after lights out. But on the first night of camp, the counselor made me close my braille book out of fairness to the low vision kids who couldn’t read print once the lights were out! If some of you are siding with the counselor and see this as a fair rule, I won’t hold it against you, but the way I saw it, I’m sure my fidgeting and inability to relax on the squeaky mattress was more annoying for my fellow cabin mates than me reading when they couldn’t, and actually, if they needed to read after lights out to fall asleep, they could have brought flashlights to read under the covers. I forget if they were allowed or not, but our bags were never searched at camp, so they could have easily smuggled one in. As long as we are being quiet, I don’t think counselors should forbid us from doing whatever we need to do to fall asleep.

But that’s not my most memorable stupid rule story that infuriated me the most about camp. Every year, there is one night where all of the campers go out to this outdoor campsite and sleep on sleeping bags in a tent for one night. The first two years I went to this camp, the nurse excused me from this typically required activity because I had scoliosis, a disease that causes your spine to grow crooked. Since this condition would get worse since I was still growing, and since it can supposedly cause pain and mess up the placement of other organs as an adult if left untreated, the doctor wanted me to wear this bulky plastic brace thing twenty hours a day to hold my spine in the right position so it would grow properly. Since my parents didn’t want me to miss out on any of the fun, especially swimming since the brace wasn’t supposed to get wet, they said it was alright for me to have it off most of the day, but I still had to wear it at night. So the nurse said that since it would be tremendously uncomfortable to sleep on the ground when I was already sleeping with a hard brace under my back, she allowed me to sleep back in the cabin and another staff member would stay with me. But my third year, the counselor wanted me to get the camping experience, and I guess the nurse wasn’t feeling merciful that year, so I had to go camping. I enjoyed roasting the marshmallows for smores over the campfire, and I will admit I didn’t really mind sleeping on the ground as much as I thought I would since my sleeping bag was pretty well padded. It was kind of neat to wake up in the morning surrounded by nature sounds that you take for granted when sleeping indoors, even if the windows are open. But it wasn’t cool being bitten by a million mosquitoes all evening despite being sprayed down by insect repellant, and it wasn’t cool that when we got in to the tent, despite the fact that it had a screen, flies got in and were buzzing all around me. Last July, I wrote an entry about how much buzzing insects creep me out and I think I mentioned that because of them, camping is out of the question. Well, this was the experience that brought me to that conclusion, and I haven’t camped out ever since. Anyway, after a fitful night of sleep from these bugs, I was not in the mood to deal with counselors being stupid and irrational, but that is exactly what I had to deal with when we sat down at picnic tables for the traditional cereal breakfast. As you know from my entry about surgery, the only beverages I can really stand are milk and water, but I thought this would not be a problem because both these beverages were available. There was a pump just steps from our tables where we had drawn water the night before, and a gallon of milk had been brought out for the cereal, but since I preferred dry cereal, I could just have my milk in a cup. But the counselor would not let me get water, and said the milk could only be used on the cereal. The only beverage available for drinking was orange juice, so when I asked her to just pour some milk in the cup, she poured it in to my cereal and poured orange juice in my cup! So my breakfast that day was a soggy disgusting bowl of cereal which I managed to eat, and orange juice which I refused to drink, making my mouth water longingly to be in the dining room with a good breakfast of something like eggs or pancakes, and milk! Now, if there was no water pump out at the campsite, and no milk had been brought out, I still would not have drank the juice, but thinking about the incident would not fill me with such fury eight summers later that I feel steam coming out my ears as I write this. I do not expect people to cater to me and go out of their way to provide milk and water, but no one would have had to go out of their way! Both milk and water were practically right under my nose, but denied because of some stupid arbitrary thing that was probably about wanting me to try new things and all that. But come on! After sleeping outside with bugs buzzing around and biting me all night, is it too much to ask to just give me a darn glass of milk?! I also wasn’t a big fan of some of the daytime activities like rope swinging which involves swinging on a rope and then jumping off the rope and landing in the lake and canoe swamping which was about purposely tipping each other’s canoes. Since I lack confidence and coordination and thus feared a serious injury from rope swinging, and since I couldn’t swim very well, and would panic when tossed in to cold water after the canoe tipped even if I could swim, I was allowed to just stand on the sidelines and be excused from these activities, which my parents told me I could do because this was not school. This was camp which was supposed to be about having fun and not feeling forced to do activities I wasn’t comfortable doing. So to make this long story short, after the third year of having to sit on the sidelines a lot during these activities, and dealing with camp staff and their stupid rules, some of which were rational but many of which were arbitrary, I came to the conclusion that camp is just not a good fit for quiet, bookish and freedom oriented people like me. I am glad I went to this camp those three years because going to camp is a trademark of childhood and I didn’t want to grow up never knowing what it was like to go off to camp. But while overnight camp gave me many fun memories that would not have been made at home, I prefer a summer vacation where I can get up and go to bed when I want, or run straight from the car to the water without a care in the world. I prefer a summer where my days are not defined by crazy adventurous activities like rope swinging or camping out in a tent, but days where I am perfectly free to sit on my porch swing in quiet solitude reading a book all day and listening to the birds and cicadas sing if I choose. I prefer a summer vacation of sleeping in my own bed and having the freedom to try new things if I want to, but not be judged if I don’t. So although I am glad that I had the opportunity to experience camp, I no longer see it as a required experience for a wonderful and fulfilling summer vacation.

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