What your enjoyment of sleep-away camp, or lack of same, says about your character.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
July 23 2010 4:54 PM

You Are How You Camped

What your enjoyment of sleep-away camp, or lack of same, says about your character.

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Illustration by Nina Finkel. Click image to expand.

The final category is people who really, really, really enjoy camp. These are the camp cultists. You probably expect me to say that these campers grow up to be utterly incapable of functioning in a noncamp environment, and end up sleeping on the streets in cardboard boxes. In fact, the opposite is true. Camp cultists grow up to be chief executive officers of major corporations, name partners in Wall Street banking firms, Cabinet secretaries, governors, and presidents of prestigious foundations. Their universities invite them to serve on their boards. Their home towns name schools after them. They are the Establishment. Longtime Disney CEO Michael Eisner is a camp cultist, having published, in 2005, Camp, a memoir of his bygone days at Vermont's Keewaydin Canoe Camp, which bills itself as the nation's oldest continually operating summer camp (it was founded in 1893), and whose Web site invites alumni to donate securities to something called the Keewaydin Foundation. I haven't read Eisner's book, but according to Amazon.com, its "statistically improbable phrases" include "winds ceremony" and "Indian circle."

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For camp cultists, summer camp is an experience that lasts a lifetime. When they're too old to be campers, they come back as counselors. When they're too old to be counselors, they send their children in their stead. When their children eventually succeed (on the third or fourth try) in getting themselves thrown out of Camp Weecheewachee, for infractions too ghastly to contemplate, camp cultists send money. Lots and lots of money. If it weren't for camp cultists, half the summer camps in the United States would be forced to close their doors, depriving today's campers of this essential early exercise in psychological sorting.

Or perhaps not. Montana Miller, a folklorist who teaches a class called "Summer Camp Ethnography" at Ohio's Bowling Green State University, insists that even children who don't attend summer camp subject themselves to the same psychological sorting process by imagining that they did. In an e-mail to me, she elaborated:

There have been so many movies and books and TV shows—not to mention the stories told by friends who return from camp—that kids internalize whether or not they went to camp themselves. … I had [my students] do an in-class writing assignment in which they recounted an anecdote from camp—presenting it as a personal-experience narrative, but not necessarily real. It could be fictional or something that happened to someone they knew. They read their anecdotes out loud to the class and we tried to guess whether these were real experiences they had had themselves, or constructions from their imaginations and their pop culture educations. You know what? In almost every case, it was impossible to tell.

The summer-camp ink blot, then, is universal. You are how you camped, even if you never camped at all.

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Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.