As a parent, I've had zero interest in the re-embracing of single-sex education of the past few years. It all smacks of British public schools and Lord of the Flies to me. And yet, for the past three summers, I've waved to my sons as one, then both have gone off to a day camp that's divided into a boys' side and a girls' side. The girls and boys take the bus together and then separate for the day. Six weeks of sex segregation—what could be the harm? Maybe there would be some all-boy magic to be worked upon Eli and Simon, some rough-and-tumble play made freer in those girl-less woods. And, yes, I think now that there is. It just comes with a dash of "be careful of the unruly wonders you wish for."
This summer, Eli, at 8, is a Shark, while Simon, at 5, is a Hawk. If they were girls, they'd be a Beaver and a Cricket, respectively. As my friend Jonathan Weisman, whose daughter is Eli's age, put it, "All the girls are cute and cuddly beavers or otters, although I guess the elks are kind of majestic." On the boys' side of the camp, the activities are canoeing and kayaking, swimming, pioneering, rock climbing, gym, archery and air riflery, soccer, and basketball. On the girls' side, knock off the last two and substitute horseback riding and drama. Why don't the boys do horseback riding? Why don't the girls play soccer? When the camp was first founded, in 1956, it was a girls' camp, which paired itself with a boys' camp under different management. Later, the boys' camp closed, and the girls' camp moved to a new site in Maryland. The new property is mostly woods, and there was room for only a few horses. Since the girls and the girls' staff were used to horses, they got them. The newbie boys got the soccer field.
This seems to me like a consolation prize. On the other hand, the boys are lucky to be there at all. The camp director, whose father is the camp's founder, tells me that when the girls' camp moved, there was a discussion about whether to make it co-ed. "But the girls had evolved their own songs and traditions," the director said. "They didn't want to change." In the end, the girls' side decided that the boys could be tolerated, but only at a distance.
And so, naturally, the boys' side developed its own songs and traditions. Butt wrestling. Burping contests. It's a real cultural mecca over there. A friend of a friend reports that since camp began, her son—a sweet child; he has two sisters—has taken to saying with gruff-voiced swagger, "I'm gonna take a leak." Eli and Simon have started yelling, "Give me five!" and then dropping to the floor for pushups, or some facsimile of them. They have learned many perfectly presentable songs at camp, but the latest one is "I don't want to be a chicken/ I don't want to be a duck/ so kiss my butt." Actually, the real lyrics seem to substitute "shake" for "kiss,"—here's one kid's rendition—but that's not what Simon thinks, and, in any case, this crossed a certain line for me. As in: You may not sing this song outside the house. I pointed out to my boys that the girls are not singing it at all. (I checked with a friend who has a daughter.) Which led to the following exchange:
Eli: "Yeah, because the girls are—"
Eli: "Civilized and boring."
Simon: "And wimpy."
Me: "But they won the swimming competition!"
Eli and Simon: "But we won in archery and air rifle!" [High fives.]
Me: "Swimming takes strength."
Eli and Simon: "In A&A you have to shoot! You have to aim!" [Much miming of the cocking of arrows. Hooting. General pandemonium.]
I worried over wimpy, but I shouldn't have. Simon and Eli are talking smack because they take the girls seriously as rivals. They have to. The girls' side competes against the boys' side in swimming and in archery and air rifle every summer. According to Eli, the girls have proven themselves the faster swimmers in 37 out of the last 50 competitions. The director couldn't confirm this precise number for me, but she agreed with a chuckle that the girls usually win. How? I wondered. "They've got extra reach and length," she says. "The boys are shorter. Most of them haven't reached that puberty stage. The oldest are 13, so, yes, some of them. But remember, everyone is participating, from the littlest on." No one is really sure why the boys tend to win the archery and air rifle competitions, but I don't feel like I have to probe that one deeply. Good enough that the lesson from the summer is that girls are to be respected as worthy competitors. This happens to be far preferable to the conclusion Eli has drawn from co-ed soccer, which is that boys often play better and harder. (Sorry, all you soccer queens out there—one kid's observation.)
I am not sure what I think about single-sex camp for older kids. Or for overnight camp. It lends itself to visions of panty raids and 1950s-style dances. But I don't begrudge my sons their six weeks of amped-up exuberance; of junior frat-boy antics; of talking to girls only to say, before the arrows fly, "You're going daaayyoohhne!" (translation: down.) One caveat: The head of the boys' camp, the director tells me, recruits women for his staff of counselors because he thinks they exert a certain calming influence—and also so that the boys will be reminded that there are women they have to listen to. A helpful idea. Especially for me, since my boys are still chortling over their discovery that Eli can do more pushups than I can. Simon, with a wild cackle: "Mommy, you're going down!"