My summers at nerd camp.

Notes from the wilderness.
July 20 2006 7:40 PM

My Summers at Nerd Camp

Geology, study hall, and "mandatory fun."

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Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click image to expand.

In 2006, Meghan O'Rourke shared stories from her childhood summers at "nerd camp." With students counting the days until the end of school and getting ready to pack up for camps of all kinds, we are reprinting the article below. 

This summer, nearly 11 million children will attend summer camps in the United States. They will eat terrible food, learn a new sport, and sing songs by a campfire. For some—let's call them well-adjusted—this experience will be joyous. For others—let's call them nerds—it won't. As one such kid who attended a sports-oriented camp in Pennsylvania told The New Yorker, "I took boxing, and I was very afraid."

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For such children, mercifully, there is nerd camp—also known as the summer programs sponsored by the Center for Talented Youth. At CTY, you don't learn to swim, or ride horses, or tie knots. Instead, you spend five hours a day in class, learning a semester's worth in a mere three weeks. After class, there is a 90-minute period of "Mandatory Fun," followed by dinner and a two-hour study hall. Mandatory Fun may be the hardest part of the day for most of the campers at CTY. I know, because I was once one of them.

On a sunny summer afternoon in 1988, I stood on a lawn at Skidmore College (one of the college campuses that hosts CTY) with several hundred kids and a few counselors preparing to do a group "lap sit"—an exercise intended to help bolster our communication skills by, well, forcing us to sit on one another's laps. I didn't really want to be at CTY: The classes I'd hoped to take were full, and I was slotted to study geology, which seemed less than exciting to me. But I was certainly a nerd, of sorts. I attended an artsy "school for the gifted" in Brooklyn, New York. My family didn't have a television, and I had pretty much listened only to classical music until the third grade. When I was 7, my dad had taught me some Latin, and I thought it was fun. My idea of summer entertainment usually involved trying to read 100 books by Labor Day. I had never gone to camp—or even considered it. Then I hit puberty. I realized I had no idea what kids in the rest of America were like. I wanted to go to camp. Instead, my parents encouraged me to try CTY.

I don't know what I had expected, but it wasn't this. On one side of me was my roommate, C., who had drawn an elaborate tear at the outer corner of her eye, in three shades of eyeliner. On the other side was a tall boy wearing an inflated pink flamingo around his neck. Hubba hubba, he said, frighteningly, as I got ready to sit on his lap. Just down the line was Zephyr, a schoolmate of mine, dressed in his customary orange jumpsuit and top hat. He and a group of his friends had become cult figures on campus, largely because they had coupled up right away and now spent Mandatory Fun making out in the grass. Most of us—recent graduates of seventh and eighth grade—were intrigued by this but also grossed out by the amount of suction they applied while kissing.

The students who attended CTY with me had placed in the top 3 percent in their age bracket on a national standardized test (like the ERB or the Iowa) and had performed as well on the SAT in the seventh grade as the average high-school junior—or, in many cases, better. The rules for qualifying have changed slightly—CTY now accepts applications from students in the top 5 percent on national standardized tests—but the organization's philosophy remains the same. According to CTY's mission statement, the program is designed not only to "encourage achievement" but to "nurture social development." It was developed by Julian Stanley, a psychologist and proponent of gifted education who believed that schools didn't challenge bright young students enough. In its earliest guise, the program had been a "talent search" aimed at mathematical prodigies, but in 1979 Stanley opened it up to a broader range of students and later began to track and study those few—approximately one in 10,000—who scored over 700 on the math or English SAT before the age of 13.

You might think a gifted program that scouts for talent using standardized tests would turn up dull, nose-to-the-grindstone-types. But at CTY, the American nerd was on view in all its heterogeneous glory: There were football players, cheerleaders, oboists, poets, stoners, exhibitionists, language prodigies, kids with blue eyes and blond hair, as well as quiet, mousy types with thick glasses. Everyone seemed very smart. But what I remember is less the hum of the quadratic equation in the air—though there was plenty of that—than the sense of relief at finally being in a place where people felt, in some sense, normal. It was a place where kids could be cool without having to downplay their interests. The concept "in loco parentis" was debated every year. One night we had such a heated discussion about nuclear proliferation that I became alarmed and called my parents. Another day, some girls on my floor and I began talking about whether we were popular in school. I remember being surprised that a few who seemed to me the epitome of "popular" material had been shunned because they were in the honors program. I realized how lucky I was to go to a school where intellectual engagement was taken for granted.

CTY wasn't free of social hierarchy, though; it just replaced the conventional hierarchy with its own. The most outré characters—the ones who figured out how to turn their intelligence into a discernible attitude, like Zephyr and his crew—became the camp's cult heroes. The rest of the food chain included its jocks, bullies, and nerds, and what we called "the silent and the faceless." But the fundamental enterprise remained a shared one, and the weekly dances were, as a friend recently put it, wondrous displays of group awkwardness. In our day, each concluded with either "Sympathy for the Devil," "Ana Ng," or "American Pie," at the end of which students chanted "Die! Die! Die! Die! Live! Live! Live! Live! Sex! Sex! Sex! Sex! More! More! More! More!" Delighted, we would go home invigorated and exhausted—a kind of clean high.

Needless to say, I loved CTY, and went back the next year. The boy with the flamingo not only became a friend, but, much later, a college roommate. I even became enraptured with geology. Our teacher—"Dr. T"—was the head of the U.S. Geological survey, and his love for his field of study was palpable and contagious.

Today, the gifted-education movement has gone mainstream, as my Slate colleague Ann Hulbert pointed out not long ago. CTY has expanded into a far larger organization than it used to be. More than 10,000 students in grades 7 and 8 now attend, compared to the roughly 2,700 in my day. And the program has extended its age range: "Baby" CTY programs start in the second grade and extend through the sixth. It may be that the old spirit of idiosyncrasy will be replaced by conformity and striving pre-professionalism, as some have worried—I couldn't help noticing that the "canon" of songs to be played at the weekly dance hasn't changed much since my day. But it seems more likely that new generations of CTY students will eventually overthrow the old traditions, making up their own forms of Mandatory Fun and creating new canons. At least, I hope so.

Thanks to Stephen Weiss and Todd Polenberg for refreshing my memories about CTY at Skidmore.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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