The Appetizer: One Week of American Summer Camp


This is the second in a series of blog posts where the author contrasts her experiences leading summer camps in America and China over the course of the summer. You can find the first post here.

In past summers, my seven weeks of being a camp counselor would fly by. Even though the days were long, the weeks were short, and soon enough I’d be saying final goodbyes to campers and co-counselors alike as I left on the last day.

In comparison, the single week I spent there this summer went by in the blink of an eye. But examine the days themselves more closely and they reveal a perfect sampling of everything I would normally experience over the course of seven weeks, condensed into one.

On day one, I was reminded of the extent to which eleven-year-olds truly believe that they are old. These kids have gone to camp forever, known each other forever. Most of them even go to school together. In their eyes, there’s nothing they can’t do. Sometimes this leads to inspiring displays of self-confidence that leave you wondering when you became an adult who worries. Sometimes it leads to a room full of yelling and laughing kids who never stop for breath. It all depends on the day.

On day two, I remembered that kids’ minds are steel traps.

At lunch, a girl I’d taught the summer before asked me point-blank if I was eating fewer Cheetos. I stared at her in confusion, until suddenly I remembered telling her how my freshman year had gone and how my goal as a rising sophomore was to stress-eat fewer Cheetos (which I did, by the way).

But this funny anecdote led me to another realization: when a kid looks up to you, they remember everything. It’s like what they say about the Internet, that everything you post lasts forever, except that the Internet is not young and impressionable. By participating in a child’s life, even for just one week, you become instrumental in shaping their worldview and their understanding of themselves. You play a more permanent role than even you realize, so it’s imperative that you play it well.

On day four, I learned that creativity is wildfire among children. One minute a camper was drawing a picture of my co-counselor, and the next we had covered a whole wall with camper drawings, made a sign, and shown off our new art gallery to the rest of the building. This display showcased our campers’ amazing ability to build on each other’s creative work—though it
consisted of nothing more than twelve drawings of the same person, no two were in the same style.

One was manga, one realistic, one impressionistic, one abstract, one reminiscent of an Internet meme. As we grow up, it starts to take more and more to coax creativity out of us. Meanwhile, with no prompting, these kids created an art gallery in a day.

On day five, it was time to say goodbye. Mercifully, I was spared much of the nostalgia that usually makes the summer’s end so painful.

This time, it felt less like an ending—even though my time there was over, the campers’ was only beginning. I can’t know for certain whether I’ve seen them for the last time, but I do know that the lessons they’ve taught me will guide me through the rest of the summer and school year. Whether I’m in China flexing my language-teaching muscles for the first time or back at Harvard trying to hold on to my creativity during a difficult semester, I know that my memories of these children will be there to ground me.