Don’t Sleep on it: Lessons Learned from Sleepover Camp

Whenever the last Wednesday in June comes around my heart skips a beat because it only means one thing: the first day of camp. For more than a decade, I, like many other city kids, spent ten months waiting for the special two that would be spent removed from the likes of modern society and technology. And though I never met a long-lost twin, my Jewish summer camp tucked away in the Muskoka forest remains the place where all my happiest memories live. So it was strange that I only went back as a staff member for one summer.

It used to be normal for staff to keep coming back for four, five, or maybe even six years. Lately, four years on staff seems to be a bit extreme if you’re not studying to be a teacher or a social worker. Indeed, for many, returning to camp as a staff member is a privilege. Many cannot afford to receive the slim salary that most camps offer their employees. While a number of my friends are still working at camp, I have spent the last two summers trying to start my professional career through internships—arguably the antithesis of summer camp. And though I had no way of knowing it at the time, what I learned at camp was the best preparation for the real world that no professional job could have ever given me.

What camp offers best is unmediated friendships. Without our screens, and in a vulnerable living situation, friendships develop in a very deep way where no little moments are missed. There is a heightened awareness about what is going on with the people who are constantly around you. And when you live with the same twelve or so individuals in a small wooden building for weeks at a time, year after year, difficult conversations and confrontations become unavoidable. This is a valuable skill because it is not only about being able to articulate your own opinions and emotions, but also having to listen to someone else’s. Being able to stand your ground while maintaining an openness to different ideas is a critical lesson, both personally and professionally.

Without our screens, and in a vulnerable living situation, friendships develop in a very deep way where no little moments are missed.

Thanks to a thing called puberty, tracking physical development is easy. But of course, not all friendships are destined to last forever, and when you start to grow apart from certain friends, later on, you may wish to be back in the perils of pubescence. The realization that perhaps a relationship has past its prime usually comes after a long period of denial. There is the risk of tarnishing memories and having to take back the proclamations of “best friends forever” written along the cabin walls.

While it’s true I would not be who I am today without my camp friends, I probably would not be friends with them if we met today. A shared experience brings people closer together but what happens when that ends? What bonds are unbreakable? Adult friendships, or any friendship where you cannot see someone every day, require hard work and patience. Keeping in touch is difficult especially when there is no set date of reuniting. Learning to let go can be both a saddening and freeing experience; a metaphorical chapter in your life is ending, and left with it are grudges, tensions, and still, cherished memories. However, this does not mean that a deep love for someone, or some place, is abandoned.

Camp taught us to love ourselves.

Perhaps the most sentimental, and predictable, lesson I garnered from summer camp was how to navigate the terrain of love. Many of us had our first kiss under the snow globe-like stars of the forest and count that as the first foray in a relationship. Admittedly, camp is the zenith of heteronormativity. For example, in my camp’s dining hall, there was a whole wall dedicated to met-at-camp marriages. What I will say, though, is that the boys I went to camp with did not possess masculinities that would shatter at the slightest hint of feminine behaviour. Quite the contrary.  There were many times when boys would wear our bras or dresses—with gusto—when activities called for it. They were not afraid to hug each other or cry in front of each other. I can only assume they were as comfortable with themselves as the girls were. Most stalls in the shower house did not have curtains, and if they did, they were transparent. This led to intimacy that I will not describe in order to keep this article from becoming soft-core pornography.

My point is that, ultimately, camp taught us to love ourselves. It provided the support system and the extra nudge that allowed us to be vulnerable. I am very comfortable with myself today because of my camp friends: the people who saw me at my worst but continued to offer their love and support.

Acute nostalgia comes over me like I am jumping into the piercing cold, but refreshing, water of the camp’s lake. This leads to nights scrolling through old pictures, listening to Dave Matthews Band, and wearing a custom ink t shirt that only a select few have. It’s torture but I do it to myself. And as I sit here scrambling to articulate all I have learned from the place that raised me—at my office, no less—I feel a pang of jealousy towards the campers getting their first taste of independence.

Not going back to camp the previous two summers was the right decision. I am trying to bulk up my résumé and dip my toes into what career paths I may like. While camp director is not one of them, unfortunately, not all employers recognize the immeasurable benefits and lessons that a camp kid will always carry with them.

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