Campsickness/End of the Trip

Our veteran campers talk often about “campsickness”—the nagging, tear-welling feeling of distance from our little camp. And though it’s not a perfect corollary to homesickness, there is a certain truth behind campsickness: you feel a part of something at camp and that real sense of belonging rarely exists anywhere else in the world.

Today marks the end of my trip. I have found my way back to sunny California to begin writing my thesis about all I’ve learned this summer. It is a task that looms large in my head. How can one explain the root of campsickness? How can one even begin to describe and give meaning to an experience so emotional charged and so total? At Geneva Glen, our directors often dispense a piece of advice on the last day of camp: “when your parents ask ‘how was camp?’ you just have to say ‘it was everything.’” How do you write about everything?

And so, going into it, I know that whatever the final product born from this summer is, it will be partial. It must be partial. And that’s okay because I know it will also be totally saturated with the memories of a summer devoted to summer camp. For, all things told, the experience of the last fourteen weeks has been everything.

I saw twenty camps in about as many days. I heard about camp traditions so complicated they required diagrams to be explained. I saw buildings put up without a single nail. I saw a ropes course that ended with a one hundred-foot-high porch swing. I saw new dining halls that looked to be built to actually house the entirety of a camp, and I saw old dining halls that packed campers like happy sardines.

I saw waterfront sunsets in Vermont rivaled only by those on the islands off of Washington’s coast. I saw a camp dog give birth to puppies. I got to take a personal kayak around a camp in Maine. I got to travel by a ferry and a motorboat to reach a remote, islanded camp. I drove 6,800 miles. I slept in my car. I saw parts of this country I think rare few people ever get to see. And then I counseled for ten weeks, and fell back in love with my job.

But most of all, I got the chance to talk to and work with numerous directors, administrators, and counselors all whole-heartedly devoted to the task of childcare. I saw people who talk about curating a child’s sense of independence with real reverence—the type of people who understand friendship as wholly sacred. I met people who actually listen and care about the stories, fears, and dreams of children. 

So, yes, I too am campsick. How could I not be?

The front gate to my long-time camp, Geneva Glen, pictured in the winter.

The front gate to my long-time camp, Geneva Glen, pictured in the winter.

Starting My Summer Camp Research Project!

Last summer, all of my thirteen campers wanted to be wizards. Across an afternoon, they each went around our mountainous Colorado woods and found small sticks, bringing back to our camp’s craft center. Some campers whittled their sticks until they were smooth. Others kept some bark at the base for better grip. A few made samurai sword-looking handles out of bright pipe cleaners. By the time I’d caught up with all of them at dinner, thirteen wands sat next to forks and knives. The next day, the wands glistened as my campers found waterproofing lacquer, and the rest of the day was given to wizard fights in the camp pool. The best part of it all: my campers were fifteen- and sixteen-year-old boys.

I have tried hard to think of another place in America today where, as a teenage boy, its cool to rocket yourself out of the water and scream Harry Potter-like spells at your friends. But I can’t; it’s only at camp.

Those kinds of moments are the impetus behind this blog and the larger project that stands beside it. I am a rising senior studying politics at Pomona College and a veteran counselor at Geneva Glen Camp in Indian Hills, Colorado. In my ultimate year at college, I’ve decided to bring together my two biggest worlds and write a thesis about political education in American summer camps, the basic argument of which centers around the idea that camp addresses some of the fundamental anxieties surrounding modern childhood. That camp offers unique solutions to inherently political fears about finding children positive role models, giving them a solid moral foundation, and endowing them with a strong sense of community and tradition doesn’t come as a surprise to camp professionals, but explaining those lessons to people in the “real world”—especially in the academic world—is a behemoth task.   

Through Pomona, I’ve received a grant that will address this task by allowing me to use the beginning and end of my summer to visit camps around America in order to learn about their programs and to try to articulate the collective lessons summer camp teaches. I want to discover the reasons behind the uncanny ability, as a ‘camp person,’ to instantly identify someone else as a ‘camp person.’ In between those two trips, I’ll be returning to Geneva Glen as a counselor. My proceeding blog posts, then, will document my travels this summer and my thoughts about the camp generally. (As I prepare my trip, I would love to hear any and all advice/thoughts/observations about the formative power of camp).

I think about camp every day. And recently, I’ve thought every day about how profoundly lucky I am to have a (really) full summer of camp—of time to explore the magic of a place that can still ignite the imaginative flame of a sixteen-year-old camper wizard.  

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    I (pictured in the upper left corner) happily admit that I was in on the wizarding. Here’s our staged battle that took place on the last day of the session. 

I (pictured in the upper left corner) happily admit that I was in on the wizarding. Here’s our staged battle that took place on the last day of the session. 

Collaboration with the Camp Staff Dream Team

Hello from the Head Counsellor - #2

Some of the Cairn Dream Team of 2012

Some of the Cairn Dream Team of 2012

In the off season, when I’m not camp hacking with Travis, I study Music Education at Wilfrid Laurier University. This past year, I took a high school music education class with an amazing professor, Doug Friesen. This guy is awesome, my friends. All you teachers out there (especially music teachers) need to check him out. He has some very insightful opinions on education and the place of creativity and collaboration within it. 

In class, we took a real hard look at collaboration and how by giving kids an opinion on things like educational content and even classroom policies, it results in them being more invested in their education. Our talks really spoke to me and I was excited to start experimenting with collaboration as soon as I could. Since being a teacher is a bit down the road for me, I decided that with the prospect of being the Head Counsellor at camp in the summer, I would try to take a collaborative approach while working with the counsellors. What was the worst that could happen? My thought was, if the counsellors were given an opportunity to work with me and each other in designing how we were going to operate, that we would all be that much more invested in the summer. 

My approach was twofold.

The first collaborative effort, and less complicated of my two ideas, was to collaborate as a group more often. We have a very structured schedule at Cairn so it was tough to come up with a time that worked well for camp but eventually, we settled on having a 15 minute meeting with one counsellor from every counselling pair or trio, every day at the end of rest hour (which for us, is after lunch, and before the 3rd session of the day). These meetings were meant for quick, daily reminders and then the remaining time strictly used for a facilitated discussion about how everyone’s week was going. Topics included cabin morale and dynamics, magic ideas, how to handle specific struggles and many others. My intention for these meetings was to not speak a whole lot. My hope was that the counsellors would draw from their own learning experiences and have them use each other as a resource network more often. While this approach to collaboration wasn’t specifically what we had talked a whole lot about in my education class, it was one that I was definitely glad to have given a try...but more on that next article!

My second collaborative experience for the summer was more along the lines of what had inspired me to explore collaboration in the first place. I was extremely curious to see how a community would work, grow, and perform under expectations that were created and agreed upon by those that would be directly affected. I decided that to have the counselling staff be able to create a comprehensive list of expectations, I would provide them with a general framework and then have the rest of the process be up to all of us from that point on.

For the foundation, I created expectation categories under the following 5 umbrellas:

Dream Big - Supporting camp magic and making camp truly extraordinary

Reach A Little Higher - Going above and beyond the bare minimum of the basics

Equilibrium - Finding balance in all things camp (ex. Finding the line between friend and counsellor, being social with the staff but being camper focused while with the kids, etc.)

Always Campers First - Understanding that campers come first and their well-being should be at the top of our priority list

Manage Yourself - Being a good emotional and physical self-manager

With these categories given to them in Leadership Training, I told the counsellors that being a “team” was something that any group of people doing a job together could call themselves. However, we were going to work together to fill in our thoughts of specific expectations that they thought were essential to being what we called “The Dream Team” of Cairn Counsellors. I had the umbrella statements each written out on chart paper so the counsellors could not only write their opinions, but read each other’s and place a check mark next to someone’s idea they really liked. 

Here is the list of what we came up with.

With these expectations, I looked through them with them and we all agreed that they seemed fair. The last step to this process was for the group to ensure we were staying accountable for the expectations that they had created. To do this, I placed 5 letter place holders on one of the walls of the staff lounge. Each was for the letters D R E A M. As the week ran it’s course, I made sure to update these letters when either I saw, or the counsellors came and told me about the community (as a whole) following through on the criteria of each category. We agreed that we would truly be able to call ourselves the “Dream Team” if we could get all of the letters for at least one of the week of the summer.

So although that this initiative did have some direction from me in the beginning and in some of the evaluation stage, the creation and upholding of the values was on all of us. It was something new, that had never been formally done before at camp so none of us had any idea how it was going to turn out...

So there it was, the framework of a collaborative summer was laid out and ready to get rolling. Going into week one, I can honestly say that I wasn’t sure was to expect and looking back on it now, I had no idea the kinds of fantastic learning we were all about to experience. 

So, I will leave you at that for now. Two weeks from now, I will talk about how this collaborative lab experiment turned out. If you have any thoughts about what I’ve talked about so far, please feel free to comment below or email me. I would love to hear from you.

Until then. Happy days.

~Matt “Iscus” Honsberger
The Head Counsellor