6 Essential Lessons from Summer Camp

By Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Going to camp for the first time is like visiting a foreign country. You can’t help coming back changed. Certainly, that’s true for the characters in my middle grade novel Drum Roll, Please. As it opens, 13-year-old Melly arrives at rock band camp, where over the next two weeks she’ll learn to play in a band, write her first song, and fall for a fellow camper named Adeline.

Camp was life-changing for me, too, though the changes were more gradual, more cumulative. Over thirteen summers, I was a camper and counselor at Girl Scout camps in Michigan, North Carolina, and California. And with all that experience, here are a few of my key takeaways.

1. You’ll never know if you’re a cannonball whiz until you jump.
 
The first time at camp is daunting. You’re confronted with unfamiliar — and sometimes just plain weird — traditions and activities, from dinosaur egg hunts to greased watermelon races.
 Some will be instant successes. (I, for example, turned out to have a talent for memorizing silly songs.) Others may be unmitigated failures. (Stilt-walking: NEVER AGAIN.) Most will fall somewhere in between. But all talents start hidden even to yourself. You have to be willing to experiment.

2. The perfect s’more takes patience and time.
 
No one was born knowing how to build a campfire. Or ride a horse. Or tie-dye a T-shirt with a perfect rainbow spiral. Saying yes to new challenges means failing sometimes.

But camp isn’t a standardized test, your abilities reduced to a series of numbers. Success means pride in the new skills learned and privileges earned. Failure isn’t the end. It’s an opportunity to try again.
 It took me years of off-season practice to pass the test that would allow me to swim in the deep end and paddle a canoe. But that first splash as I finally jumped off the raft was all the more glorious, knowing how hard I’d worked for it.

3. Afraid of the dark? Lose your flashlight.
 
It’s practically guaranteed: at some point, you’ll drop your flashlight and no amount of jiggling the switch will make it come back on. Every snap of a twig will send your mind leaping to hungry bears.
 But after your panic subsides, you’ll notice how bright the moon and stars are, filtering through the trees. The dark isn’t so dark after all — and chances are you know the path better than you thought you did. You just needed to be on your own. You’ll arrive back at your tent glowing with renewed faith in yourself.

4. Everything’s better with a buddy.
Camp presents an extra challenge for introverts. From activities to meals, there’s no escaping your fellow campers. You can barely brush your teeth in peace.
 But by the same token, camp demonstrates the value of teamwork. Canoe solo? If you want to get swamped in those nettles, maybe. Scavenger hunts? Marco Polo? Sing-alongs? Nope. Nearly every activity is made possible only by sharing sweat, skills, and camaraderie.
 And take chores. I once knew some girls who called themselves the Latrine Singers, using their brooms as microphones. Even cleaning toilets can be fun, given the right company!

5. You don’t have to be friends to be allies.
 
At camp, everyone is the “kid who.” The kid who’s homesick. The kid who can’t swim. The kid who snores. Nobody’s immune, including you. And while camp is fertile ground for intense friendships to grow, it’s equally fertile for intense rivalries.
 Yet out of shared experiences — from taking on a ropes course high in the trees to waiting out a thunderstorm — evolves mutual respect. Your fellow campers’ success is your success. Their failure is your failure. Getting along, it turns out, takes far less energy than being enemies. And those first impressions blur until the “kid who” just may turn out to be your greatest friend of the summer. (True story.)

6. You can never have too many friendship bracelets.
 
Beaded, braided, or knotted in complex patterns . . . a gift from your oldest, dearest pal or that weird new kid who barely said ten words to you . . . at the end of the summer, what matters is the connections made and the memories that will stay with you long after the last knot frays away.


About the Author:
Lisa Jenn Bigelow grew up in Kalamazoo and still considers the Mitten State home. She loves plunking around on the piano and guitar, but her true musical talent is having a camp song for every occasion. Lisa’s young adult novel, Starting from Here, was named a Rainbow List Top Ten book by the American Library Association. When she isn’t writing, she serves as a youth librarian in the Chicago suburbs. Visit her online at www.lisajennbigelow.com.

About the Book: