Going to Summer Camp Is Actually Kind of Awful—Unless You’re a Counselor

Notes from the wilderness.
July 3 2006 12:19 PM

Minor Gods

Why camp is for the counselors.

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Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

Summer camp isn't really for the campers. Bless their hearts, they're mostly just hoping to get back home with no broken bones or major emotional traumas. No, camp is for the counselors, who, after all, are there by choice, get paid, frequently snog the other counselors, and basically ride a serotonin high all summer long.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

I first realized this truth as a 12-year-old, floating in the center of a lake in western Massachusetts. It is a windless day, and my 8-foot sailing dinghy is perfectly still, save for a gentle rocking. The sun roasts down through my orange life preserver. In the distance, across an expanse of calm water, I hear a speedboat roaring to life.

It's the sailing counselors. They're headed directly for me. This can only be bad.

There are two of them—a guy and a gal, each about college age. I seem to remember both of them wearing aviator sunglasses at all times. (The kind favored by highway patrolmen and rural prison guards.) Their skin is smooth and golden. Their khaki shorts and faded T-shirts hang loosely on their beautiful bodies. They are the picture of ease and assurance, ruling the lake like a king and queen.

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As their speedboat chops smoothly across the water toward me, the girl counselor lifts a bullhorn to her mouth and pulls the trigger. "Capsize drill!" she shouts, with a squawk of metal distortion. As she lowers the bullhorn she breaks into a giggle. The boy counselor stands at the helm with his T-shirt off, revealing his crenelated abs. He slams the throttle forward and pilots the boat on a graceful arc—carefully designed to throw maximum wake into the side of my dinghy. A thick wave rolls off their bow, gathers itself, crashes over my gunwales, and swamps my tiny craft.

Over we go. The groaning of ropes and wood. A gasp as I plunge into freezing water. Then darkness, as the sail flops down on my head and drives me below the surface. I scramble and kick to daylight. I can hear the counselors whooping with glee. And I think to myself, through the shivering and the coughing up of lake water: I want so very much to be them.

As a camper—dropped off at a cluster of cabins somewhere in the Berkshires, or northern Maine, or the wilds of Wisconsin—you dream that the four (or, shudder, eight) weeks of camp will be a visit to a better world. A world where every kid is friends with every other kid, and whatever pigeonhole you've been stuck in at school is no longer there to hem you in. Of course, it never works that way. The laws of tween society pertain. Cliques form instantly. It's no easier to talk to that girl in your archery session than it was to talk to that girl in your social studies class, and neither of them will ever know your name. Soon enough, you long to escape through those wooden gates at the camp's entrance.

But the counselors? They face none of these worries. They really do arrive at camp to find a perfect Eden—hidden away from the rest of the world—where the rules are different and life is better. I didn't fully understand this side of the equation until one summer during college when, lacking any better employment opportunities, I went up to Maine to be a counselor at a coed sleep-away camp on a small lake.

I was the sailing counselor, of course. All that time on the water as a kid had paid off. I spent my summer sprawled out on the speedboat, tending my suntan. When I got bored, I would motor over to a kid's dinghy and forcibly capsize it. I'd watch the kid emerge sopping from the lake and then speed away while he was left to bail out his boat with a plastic bucket. (Believe me, this was not sadism. To become good sailors, those kids really did need to practice capsizing safely. While being laughed at.)

That summer, I learned what it is to be a minor god. To rule over my kingdom with casual confidence. To throw off the chains of the workaday world and trade them in for lazy days on a lake. To skinny-dip with a flock of hot, 22-year-old counselor chicks.

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