Grace Wallace grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and attended the University of Michigan. She attended Rockbrook as a child, worked as a cabin counselor and activity instructor, and later served as an Associate Director working on programming and recruitment. Grace enjoys reading and writing, and now teaching.
Every summer, on the first full day of camp, it strikes me how little time it takes for the “spirit of Rockbrook” to take hold on our campers.
Within the first 24 hours, our campers transform from the quiet, polite children who arrive on Opening Day into true Rockbrook Girls (who, while always polite, are rarely quiet). Through the courage of jumping into the lake for the swim demos yesterday, the creativity of planning and performing skits with their cabins last night at Evening Program, and the sheer adventure of setting out this morning for the activities that they themselves chose, those handy manners that school instills in them are stripped away in preparation of three weeks of carefree fun.
Gone too are some of the inhibitions that might hold them back from taking fun and crazy chances in the “real world.” Girls who have been nervous around horses their whole lives chose to step into the barn this morning. Girls who swore up and down all year long that they wouldn’t do the camp swim demo completed it yesterday afternoon and earned their green bracelet. Girls who dreaded opening day all year long, sure in the knowledge that they would be homesick, began to realize that they are strong enough to make it through, and even enjoy, nearly three weeks away from the comforts of home.
Most wonderfully, though, campers are putting away their self-consciousness and desire to “fit in” with the crowd, and have begun to let their inner zaniness shine through. They are realizing that camp is a place where “weirdness” is not only tolerated, but welcomed and encouraged—a place where differences are celebrated. Silly songs in the Dining Hall? No problem. Creating a skit about Cinderella and Hannah Montana starting a dance party on the moon? Totally normal. Wearing pants on your head to dinner? All par for the course.
There were three Juniors in particular who embraced that philosophy last night, when they stood up and made the announcement at dinner that, “Rockbrook is all about having fun, and sometimes to have fun you have to get a little weird.” They then challenged their fellow campers to dress as weirdly as possible for today’s meals. Our Rockbrook girls, new and returning, rose marvelously to the challenge. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were populated by walking bananas, ketchup bottles, aliens, pants-on-head wearers, giant sunglasses, and more.
It is amazing to see the transformations that only a single day at camp can bring about; and even more amazing to consider how our campers will continue to grow and change between today and Closing Day.
A parent asked me recently what it is about Rockbrook that makes it so special–what it is that has their daughter coming home year after year happier, more confident, and more comfortable with herself and her quirks.
I rambled a bit in response, and gave some rote answer about the strength of our community, and our encouraging of independence, and the surprising bits of spontaneity in our schedule that keep the campers on their toes.
The parent nodded along as though satisfied with my answer, but as I thought about the conversation more and more over the next few days, I became more and more dissatisfied with it. It’s not that all those things I mentioned aren’t true–they are, and they are wonderful facets of camp life. But they are not the heart of what makes Rockbrook special. I’ve been thinking for days now, trying to distill all of the magic and wonder of camp down into one phrase that sums it all up. One phrase that explains why everything about camp means so much to so many people.
I don’t know if such a phrase even exists, but I think I’ve come up with a contender: here at Rockbrook, we embrace the weird.
It isn’t so much that we make people weirder exactly; it’s that we provide a place where kids can let their inner-weirdness shine. They spend so much time at school, struggling to be thought of as normal, and learning from their peers that their differences and quirks aren’t something to be celebrated, but rather something to be suppressed. Often it seems that, despite the efforts of all the people who see and love their beautiful eccentricities, children (and especially teenagers) teach themselves to imitate “normalcy.” The logic seems to be that if they look and act like everyone else, their uniformity might earn them acceptance.
The beauty of camp, I think, is that we not only appreciate each other’s differences, we downright celebrate them. The girls that earn the biggest cheers in the Dining Hall aren’t the ones with their hair done up in the latest style, and their makeup done just right: they’re the girls wearing giant banana costumes for no particular reason, and singing a rousing rendition of “Banana Phone” into the microphone during announcements. The girls who begin the fashion trends at camp aren’t the ones sporting RayBans or the coolest swimsuits–they’re the ones that discover that tie-dyed knee socks and duct-tape headbands are without a doubt the most fabulous things since sliced bread.
Most importantly, the ringleaders in the cabin are not the girls who think they have to be catty to impress people–it’s the class clowns, the includers, and the girls who can make even the most boring day fun and interesting who steal the show.
If a girl doesn’t want to be weird, though–if she doesn’t feel comfortable being the only person in the room wearing a chocolate-chip cookie costume–that’s just fine. No one will think she’s boring or, well, weird for not being weird. She can be the person whom she feels most comfortable being, while still learning to love the weirdness of others. Learning to appreciate the eccentricities of others is just as important as learning to express your own, and that’s a skill that is honed here every day.
I don’t know if this phrase is the winner. Maybe it isn’t our love of weirdness that makes Rockbrook what it is–I’m sure the truth of the matter is something much more indefinable. But I know that it’s the quality that has meant the most to me in my time here. It was here that I first learned that it was okay to be a tomboy, okay to have a laugh that is louder than everybody else’s, and okay to spend most of my free time daydreaming about getting my letter to Hogwarts.
No, camp taught me that these qualities were more than just “okay.” They were the parts of myself that I should be proudest of.
Last night, we held my without-a-doubt favorite event of each session: the shaving cream fight. It is an event at which girls leave their manners in the cabin, put aside all their instincts that demand that they stay clean and orderly, and give no thought to the rules–because there aren’t any.
This event is camp’s equivalent of giving a child an expensive gift for her birthday, only to have her play with the empty box for the next month or so. We spend a lot of time and energy putting on elaborate events for the kids throughout the session. And they do enjoy them–but nothing can quite equal the utter, visceral joy of being handed a bottle of shaving cream, and told to just go nuts.
Something about the simplicity of it all–pick up shaving cream, shake can, spray onto as many people as you can, get as messy as possible–lends itself to a beautiful sort of mindlessness. There’s no goal that you must reach, no way to win or lose, and, most importantly of all, no fear that someone might judge you for looking like a walking marshmallow. There is only the can in your hand, the grass between your toes, and the grin on your face.
It’s the simple pleasures such as this one that I believe is camp’s greatest gift to campers. Too often in the real world (and yes, sometimes even in the camp world), we overlook the tiny things in the world around us that can bring us joy. We are too intent on the big picture, on making this world and our lives exactly what we want them to be, to stop and focus on the details that are of no real use to anybody, but still can chance our lives and make them more beautiful. We tend to miss the trees for the forest.
Take the campers I saw in the lake yesterday, swimming back and forth, intent on finishing their mermaid laps in time to get the Dolly’s trip prize. Would there have been any real harm done if they had stopped their swimming, and floated silently in the sunshine for the rest of Free Swim? What about the camper I talked to a few days ago, trying to race through “Hamlet” before the end of camp, so that she would have time to write her report when she got home? What if she had forgotten the deadline, and taken a few moments to slow down and appreciate the mellifluous rhythms of Shakespeare’s language?
But I know it’s not that easy. Of course everyone would prefer to slow down and appreciate the little things, but the big things feel too important, too pressing to ignore even for a moment. Stopping to smell the roses feels like a luxury that simply cannot be afforded.
But at camp, thank goodness, that particular luxury comes cheaper. Camp gives both campers and staff the chance to slow down and focus the significantly less important, and more joyous, things. Of course there are still moments, even at camp, when we too get caught up in the big picture. The completion of mermaid laps, the execution of the perfect skit, the nitty gritty and ins and outs of the daily schedule, even the completion of a blog post–all of these things can draw our eyes away from the joys all around us.
Which is why the shaving cream fight, and other camp events and activities like it, are so important. They strip down our priorities and interests into those that are most vital to our happiness. They train us to look past the things that seem important, and focus on the quieter things that really are. Put more simply, they allow all of us–camper, counselor, and director–to just slow down for a minute and remember what it feels like to just be kids.
“Rockbrook Girl” is a title that we throw around all the time here at camp. We call campers Rockbrook Girls when they help to clean up messes that they didn’t help to create, are friendly to a new camper, or come bounding in on Opening Day with a grin from ear to ear and a fervent (and usually vocal) wish for their parents just to be gone already, so camp can start. We even have a song (“Hooray for [blank], She’s a Rockbrook Girl”), which ascribes that title to anyone at camp that we want to celebrate.
What is a Rockbrook Girl? Well—the lazy answer is that you just sort of know her when you see her. This is the answer that I nearly always lean on, since every time I put on my analytical hat and try to sum up the essence of a true Rockbrook Girl into a single, ironclad list of qualities, I run into this roadblock: there is such a wide array of thoroughly different Rockbrook Girls that there is an exception to nearly every trait I deem necessary.
Are Rockbrook camp girls talkative? Sure, plenty of them are. But what about the two that I saw yesterday, sitting on the Hill, not saying a word to one another, one sketching, the other reading? They looked incredibly happy to be there, and walked off when the bell rang for Evening Program with huge smiles on their faces. So what if they hadn’t said two words to each other through the whole of Twilight? They had enjoyed that hour with one another just as much as the most talkative girls in camp had.
Are Rockbrook girls outdoorsy? Sometimes they are. There are girls who go out on every paddling, rock climbing, and hiking trip that we offer. They want to learn every camping skill that we can teach them, and would happily eschew the allures of air conditioning for the rest of their lives. But what about the ones who like to stay in their cabins with their friends, making friendship bracelets or playing cards? They are no less Rockbrook Girls than the first sort.
You see the challenge. Yet still, I think I have come up with five qualities that sum up Rockbrook Girls, that still manage to allow for the myriad personalities that fit into that category. Some girls show up on their first day of camp, fully equipped with every one of these qualities, ready to take camp by storm. Some gain a little bit more of each of them each year that they come to camp, as Rockbrook helps to shape them into the adults that they will become.
Whether they are talkative or quiet, shy or outgoing, Rockbrook Girls are always friendly to one another. There’s no room here at camp for the cliques and exclusion that you can find at schools, and Rockbrook Girls tend to get that right away. In fact, it’s one of the qualities of camp that they relish most. Rockbrook girls view every person that they see as a potential friend, and will go out of their way to treat those people with kindness and respect.
Rockbrook girls laugh. They laugh when something is funny, of course, but they also laugh at themselves, when they do something silly or make a mistake. Sometimes they just laugh to fill the silences, to make sure that no one is getting too bored. Most importantly, though, they laugh when things don’t go right. They push through frustration and embarrassment, and find the humor in every situation, knowing that as long as they can laugh at it, no challenge is too difficult to tackle. Just the other day, during swim demos, I saw one of our youngest campers jump into the lake, and immediately ask the life guards to help her out. She climbed out of the lake and over to me with a grin on her face. She shrugged, and said “Well, that didn’t go so well!” I reassured her that the cold water can be a shock the first time you jump in, and that there’s nothing wrong with not quite getting it the first time. She laughed out loud, and said, “I’m not worried! I’ll just go again tomorrow.” And she marched off to join her new friends. That, right there, was a Rockbrook Girl.
Every girl here has at least enough daring to leave the familiarity of home, and come to a place as crazy as this for a few weeks. That is impressive enough already. But, while they’re here, this trait can manifest itself in manifold ways. Maybe they go on every trip that we offer without looking back. Maybe they have to stand at the edge of the rock that starts the zip line for ten minutes before stepping off into thin air. Maybe they audition for the play on day one. Maybe they dread the Evening Program skits every night, but join in resolutely anyway, taking on a bigger and bigger role each time. Regardless of the form of their daring—whether effortless, or a quieter, more determined sort of courage—Rockbrook Girls always possess a bit of it.
Every girl at camp has jobs to do. Whether they have to take out the cabin trash in the morning, clear the tables after a meal, or keep their area in the cabin neat for the sake of their cabin-mates, they are great about remembering their responsibility to help keep camp clean. True Rockbrook Girls, though, tend to go the extra mile. They offer to help a new camper find their way to their activities, they stay behind after craft activities to help clean up the supplies, they walk their friends to the deducky if they have to go in the middle of the night, they lend out their flashlights and costumes and stationery, they sit and listen and offer a shoulder to cry on whenever a friend is upset… there are countless ways that they find to help. This comes, I think, from being very aware that they are a key part of this community. They feel acutely the responsibility that comes along with that, and want to help in any way they can to make our community strong.
5. Confidence to be who they are
This is a hard one. We all feel that urge to change bits of ourselves to fit in and be a part of the cool crowd. Rarely (though it does happen) do girls come into their first year of camp feeling entirely comfortable with who they are, quirks and all. But as they come back, year after year, something begins to change. They find it a little easier to be friendly to new or “uncool” girls. They find it a little easier to laugh when things get tough. They find it a little easier to call on that sense of daring when needed. They find it a little easier to lend a helping hand, even when it might inconvenience them. And, most importantly, after years of being surrounded by friendly, happy, daring, and helpful friends who love and support them in everything they do, Rockbrook girls find it a little easier to show the world their true selves, without apology.
Tonight, during Twilight, I took a walk. Ordinarily, in that quiet hour just after dinner, I’m holed up in the office answering emails or returning phone calls. But tonight, after two gloomy days of drizzling rain, I decided to walk out beneath the clearing skies and see what there was to see.
Twilight is always a bit of a hodgepodge—you never know quite what you’ll get. There could be an all-camp event, like a dance or auction; there could be an impromptu gaga ball tournament, or a meeting of Rockbrook Readers on the Hillside Lodge porch; or there could be no organized events at all, just campers milling about and choosing their own way to fill the time until the bell rings for Evening Program.
Tonight was that third sort of Twilight—the best sort, in my opinion. Campers ranged across the hill in the waning light. Clusters of girls sat on the still-damp grass, making friendship bracelets, chatting about their day, and watching the sun set.
A line of older campers, wearing workout clothes and kneepads, trooped down the hill to the gym, to play some volleyball. They talked and laughed as they made their way down the hill—some linked arms, some called up to their friends, sitting on the hill, asking them to come and watch the game.
During this particular Twilight, the Dining Hall was being cordoned off by the CA’s. They’ll spend tonight and all of tomorrow transforming our everyday Dining Hall into another world of their creation. Their excited laughter seeped out from beneath the sheets they’d hung over the building’s screens and doors (to guard against curious eyes). Already, I could feel the anticipation for tomorrow night’s Banquet beginning to build.
I sat with two Juniors on Hiker’s Rock for several minutes, watching as they built a fairy house (I tried to help, but I don’t have quite the knack for fairy architecture that they do). Their focus was admirable, and their conviction was complete that this structure would indeed be the home of Rockbrook fairies—and who am I to say that they were wrong?
The whole of Twilight was like this—peaceful, quiet, and happy. Mixed into the atmosphere, I think, was the knowledge that things would begin to speed up again soon. Tomorrow, there will be a steady increase of energy and anticipation, leading to Banquet. Wednesday will be a blur of packing, moving, plays, and Spirit Fire. Thursday, camp ends.
But tonight, we all took a breath together. We relished one last time the quiet and the ease of camp, and didn’t allow anything to make us to feel hurried or anxious. We sat beneath the dripping trees, and watched as night settled into place around us, content simply to be with one another.
In many ways, the days here at camp run like clockwork.
Wake up at 8 AM. Breakfast at 8:30. Morning Assembly at 9:15. First Period at 9:45. Muffin Break at 10:45. And so on. Our schedule sets the pace of our day, and forms the framework of every camper’s experience. It is comfortable, and familiar; while it may contain countless activities that they had never dreamed they’d ever try, it is still what the campers expect after years of unchanging school routines.
But the schedule isn’t what the campers remember. Those day-to-day routines aren’t what they can’t stop talking about when they come home at the end of the session. They remember the spice, the excitement, and the spontaneity that are mixed into every piece of the schedule–surprising bits of joy so bright and exuberant, that the campers would never consider the camp schedule to be as unspectacular as their morning commutes to school.
These surprises can be as small as a cabin making a spur-of-the-moment decision to all wear cowboy boots and Zorro masks to lunch, or as big as the adventure trips that we offer to campers every single day. Just yesterday, for instance, we offered five.
Between zip-lining, Castle-Rock-climbing, Green-River-kayaking, Cascade-Lake-canoeing, and Nantahala-rafting, every camper, from youngest to oldest, had the opportunity to throw a wrench into their schedule, and make their day spectacular.
They took their chance, threw out the schedule they had adopted on opening day, and set out to see the world in a new way–maybe from fifty feet above camp, zipping through the air. Maybe from the spectacular vantage point at the top of Castle Rock. Maybe from a tiny boat in the middle of a vast lake. Comfort zones were left far behind, without a second thought, by campers intent on having an adventure.
I had the pleasure of greeting these girls when they returned from their trips. They looked exhausted. And dirty. And sweaty. And really, really ready for a good night’s sleep. But they also looked bright-eyed, and thrilled with themselves. Even though they were utterly spent, they still jumped at the opportunity to list out everything they had accomplished that day, whether it was a hand-roll in a kayak, or the courage to step off a tall rock and zoom through the air on the zip line.
It would be back to the schedule tomorrow. Back to the more typical camp days, full of the smaller, though no less wonderful, accomplishments, like tackling a new friendship bracelet design in Jewelry Making. But they didn’t mind. They had made their day spectacular. They’d figure out a way to do the same for tomorrow, tomorrow.
One of my favorite memories as a staff member at Rockbrook occurred one day early in Third Session a few years ago. A rainstorm had just cleared out, and I was walking to the Dining Hall, enjoying the reemerging sunshine. I walked past a shady spot by the stream, where a patch of earth had been transformed into a patch of mud. Two Juniors were jumping around in the mud, getting splatters all over their legs and clothes, and laughing uproariously when their feet would slide out from beneath them.
The noise attracted one of their counselors, who had been standing nearby. As she approached, the girls got very still, adjusted their giddy smiles into expressions of contrition, and waited to be reprimanded for making such a mess. The counselor stood quietly for a moment, looking them over, before kneeling, taking a handful of mud and spreading a wide streak of mud on each cheek, like war paint. “Can I play?” she asked.
I continued past the little group to the Dining Hall, leaving behind two awed and delighted campers, and one very, very cool counselor. I saw all three that evening at dinner, scrubbed clean. They were relating their adventures to the rest of their cabin—telling them all about the moment they realized that they were actually allowed to be dirty.
Now, there’s no need to worry, we do encourage frequent showers, parcel out daily chores to keep the cabins tidy, and have all campers and counselors help to clean up the tables after meals in the dining hall. That being said, we also do all that we can to discourage that aversion to getting dirty that seems only to get stronger in girls as they get older. It’s no secret that girls tend to become more focused on their appearance as they get older, and Senior campers have expressed to me their reluctance even to do something as simple as getting their faces painted at home, for fear of looking dumb.
That fear of looking dumb, or silly, or improper, or anything other than perfectly presentable at all times, is a fear that camp manages to quash remarkably quickly considering how powerful it can be out in the “real world.” Within a few days at camp, makeup bags have been zipped up and put away, hair has been thrown up into messy buns, and hands have been stained by tie-dye and red clay.
Last night, we put that change on full display, by putting on a “girls’ dance,” a giant dance party—complete with a DJ, glow sticks, and strobe lights—down at the gym. After dinner, each age group went back to its lodge, where the girls decked themselves out in glow-in-the-dark facepaint, glow stick jewelry, and white clothes.
To get down to the gym, the girls had two options. They could either walk down the lower line of cabins to the gym, and start dancing a little early, OR they could take the messier route. Lining the lakeside road (which also leads to the gym), were counselors, CITs, and Hi Ups, toting water guns and bags of powder paint. Campers of all ages ran down this path, allowing themselves to be soaked first, then covered from head to toe in multicolored paint. Emerging from the other end of this “color run” was an army of human tie-dyes, racing to get to the gym and an evening of music and dancing.
With no slow dances with boys, streaky makeup, or pretty clothes to worry about, the girls danced harder and seemed to have more fun than I’d ever seen at a camp dance before. They streamed out of the gym again at bedtime, taking their milk and cookies with them as they went, giving no thought to their sweaty clothes, streaky painted faces, or tangled hair. The campers that I talked to could only express the fun they’d had, and maybe a bit of pride in the audacity it took for them to get a little messy.
One twilight, late in July of 1999, I sat on the Rockbrook hill with my counselor, watching the sun sink down behind the mountains.
Well, she was watching the sun. I was too preoccupied with the stream of words pouring uninterrupted from my mouth to give much thought to the scenery.
I had been writing a new story for the past few weeks, and my counselor had made the classic mistake of asking me what it was about. Forty-five minutes later, she was still nodding along, as I explained the great tragedy of the main character’s mother not understanding that taking time to do her homework would distract her from her duties as a spy (what my stories lacked in originality, they more than made up for in melodrama). My counselor asked all the right questions, laughed and gasped in all the right places, and, in all, served as the perfect sounding board for my eight-year-old yarn-spinning. I was delighted.
Today, I remember very little else about the story in question (thank goodness), and even the once-familiar face of my counselor has faded into a half-remembered smile from an old cabin photo. But what I do remember with perfect clarity were the sensations I felt that evening on the hill.
The astonishment at being asked about my story out of the blue.
The shyness with which I began–sure that she only wanted to hear the barest details.
The glee with which I greeted her many follow-up questions.
And, more than anything, the growing realization that she was going to let me keep talking. There was no polite smile, and change of subject as the details of my story got more and more intricate. There was no attempt to steer the conversation to a topic more interesting to her. There was no indication at all that my counselor would rather be anywhere else than right there on the hill, listening to a play-by-play of my story.
My whole life to that point, I had been trained on how best to be a kid in the grown-ups’ world. How to listen to what the grown-ups tell me. How to eat the food the grown-ups put in front of me without complaint. How to entertain myself or play with other kids rather than pester the grown-ups with constant requests for games or entertainment. How to recognize when the grown-ups are discussing something important, and wait my turn. How to be patient, quiet, seen and not heard. How, in short, to be a polite, well-behaved child. And these lessons weren’t a bad thing–they prepared me for the day when I would have to become a well-mannered adult.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that some of these lessons sank in better than others. I was, and still am, rarely seen without also being heard. But I was also always aware of how far I was trespassing beyond the bounds of good manners for a child. Whenever I talked to a grown-up, I would be waiting for the moment when I’d be told that my time was up, so that the grown-up could turn back to whatever grown-up matters there were to occupy their time.
And yet, there I was on the hill, treading far past the dictates of good manners, as I spent ten minutes describing the main character’s relationship with her best friend (and mortal enemy), and my counselor made no move to stop me.
It was during that wonderful hour on the hill, several days into my first session at camp, that I first began to understand the central truth of camp: this is not the grown-up world. It is proudly, defiantly, magnificently not the grown-up world. I was not a guest in this new camp world, there to have Very Important Life Lessons served up for me by the nearest available adult. I was an active participant in this community, able to make my own choices, talk until I was blue in the face, make my own mistakes, and craft my own camp experiences. And every adult in sight was there to make sure I had the time of my life while doing it.
These days, I have the rarer opportunity of being a grown-up at camp. I get to be the guest in kid-world. Whenever I get lost in the logistics of camp–those lists of names, activities, and out-of-camp trips that pass through my hands every day–I can be snapped out of it at any moment by an invitation to a dance party in a lodge, or to the newly opened spa in Junior 3. I can be asked to braid one girl’s hair on the steps of the dining hall, and find myself braiding six others in quick succession afterwards, because why on Earth should I say no?
I get to watch as campers spend the first few days of camp coming into their own, and taking ownership of this new world. I get to see the looks of dawning possibility when they first choose their own schedule for the next three days. I get to see them try the food on the dinner table and, if they decide it isn’t for them, head off to the salad bar to find something more to their liking. I get to see them come alive in kid-world, and realize that, unless their safety or someone else’s is at risk, we won’t hold them back from pushing their limits and experiencing new things.
But my favorite moment to watch will always be those one-on-ones between camper and counselor. When I get to see the moment that the child realizes that her ideas, opinions, and interests are sincerely appreciated by an adult she respects–an adult who will listen without promoting their own ideas as being better informed or more interesting.
That’s the moment when they realize they’ve entered kid-world, and it’s going to be better than they even imagined.
I was six years old when I found the ravine. I had heard my older sisters talk about the ravine before, of course, but they had all firmly refused to show me where it was. They had mostly grown out of their days of playing outside by the time I set out to find it, but still they felt there was a certain importance in my finding it on my own—a sort of rite of passage.
And so, every day after first grade, I would press out on my own into the trees behind my house, in search of the ravine (it should be noted that I did not actually know, at the time, what a ravine was—I was, however, assured that I would know it when I saw it).
I don’t remember how long it took me, how many days of searching before I stumbled across it. I don’t remember the season, month, weather, or day of the week it was when I finally emerged from the trees and saw what was, unmistakably, The Ravine—all of those details have faded away across the years. What I do remember was the sense of absolute exhilaration that I felt when I saw the slope of massive gray rocks descending steeply into the stream at the bottom. I had found it: the place for kids, the place where adults never went. This was my place.
My family moved out of that house a few years later, cutting short my time with the ravine. I haven’t been back there since I was a child, but the place still looms large in my imagination as being as big and profound a spot as the Grand Canyon itself. A cursory glance at the land behind my old house on Google Earth, however, tells me that it was nothing more than a (slightly) glorified drainage ditch that stretched for about thirty yards above ground before disappearing beneath it.
My mother’s thoughts on the ravine (once we finally told her, about a year ago, that it had once been our favorite hangout) were less generous still. To her adult eyes, it had been nothing more than a smelly, mosquito-ey, (probably) vermin-infested dump, and she was horrified that we had spent so much time there.
But to us, then and in our memories still, it was paradise.
Thinking about it today, with sensibilities that have been honed by several years of working with children at camp, the thought of a six year old tramping off into the woods by herself makes me immensely nervous. What if I had fallen? What if I had come across a dangerous animal? What if I had tripped and gotten stuck between two of those heavy boulders, and no one had known where to find me? What if I had drowned, or been eaten by a bear, or gotten lost and wandered around aimlessly through the wilds of Mississippi until my parents had given up on ever finding me?
As you can probably guess, none of those things happened. I think I fell and skinned my knee once, but, as tragedies go, that’s not the worst, and I did feel pretty cool walking through the back door at the end of the day with my very own battle wound.
I rarely think about the ravine anymore, but recently I read an article called “The Overprotected Kid,” by Hanna Rosin, and memories of the place came flooding back. Rosin talks at length of the modern lack of once ubiquitous childhood spaces such as mine. I’d imagine a lot of the parents reading this can remember a place of their very own where they went to play. A secret place, usually outside, where they and their friends built forts, played hide and seek, and settled their own problems and sought out their own, individual accomplishments. A place where their parents rarely, if ever, went. I wonder how many of today’s children could say that they have such a place?
Between school, extracurricular activities, and family time at home, modern children spend less and less time away from the direct supervision of adults. On first thought, this seems like a great thing. It’s a dangerous world, after all. If they are always near adults, then we can keep them from taking unnecessary risks, we can intervene when they have conflicts with their siblings or friends, and we can guide them through every challenge that comes their way. If we are vigilant enough, as parents and childcare professionals, then we can protect children from ever suffering the sting of failure, or the anxiety that accompanies facing a new challenge.
But, of course, there is a backlash to this constant supervision. Shield them too much from any sort of discomfort, any sort of risk, any sort of failure, then when the inevitable day comes that they are faced with these things, they might be unequipped to handle it for themselves.
So how do we find the balance between protecting children, and giving them the freedom they need to grow and develop on their own?
You guessed it.
We call Rockbrook “A place where girls can grow” for a reason: 2-4 weeks spent in the heart of our wooded mountain gives girls the chance to make a world for themselves. It gives them the chance to try new things and face the very real chance that they just might not be any good at it: maybe they’ll never hit the target in archery, but they’ll try it anyway. It gives them the chance to craft their own set of cabin rules with their peers, and teaches them to hold themselves and each other accountable, without the interference of adults. It teaches them to find the joy of climbing to the very top of the mountain, while still having an appreciation and respect for the risks and struggles it takes to get there. It gives them the chance to grow.
I’m certainly not saying that campers at Rockbrook are unsupervised—far from it. They are always within sight and earshot of at least one counselor, adventure guide, or director. But the beauty of staffing our camp with college-age counselors is that they are in the unique position of being at once an authority figure, and a “cool” older kid, around whom our campers feel entirely comfortable to be their quirky, crazy, energetic selves.
We value our counselors for the responsibility and trustworthiness for which we hired them. The camp girls value our counselors because they can behave more naturally with them than they would with “normal” adults (they know, for example, that their counselors will not bat an eye should they spontaneously decide to show up at dinner wearing a batman costume and a tiara).
We give the campers supervision that doesn’t feel like supervision. We let them take risks—like climbing up rock-faces and hurtling down whitewater rapids in a raft—that feel like risks, but are supervised by professionals who know exactly how to keep them safe. When the campers fight with one another, often we let them work out the dispute among themselves. We’ll be nearby, and will intervene if necessary, but we know that they have the tools necessary to solve their own problems, and they will be the stronger for it afterward.
They might gain some bumps and bruises along the way. You might pick up your child on closing day with a freshly skinned knee, or a bee sting, or a story of the unkind words a fellow camper said to her. But delve deeper into these stories and you’ll find that the skinned knee was acquired on an incredible hike to the top of Looking Glass Rock. The bee sting hurt, sure, but a counselor or nurse was standing by with an Epi-pen, just in case, and now your daughter has learned all about the signs that might signal anaphylactic shock. Maybe she never quite came to like the girl who said unkind things, but she did learn that she has the strength and maturity to live peacefully with a person that she’s not fond of—a skill that we all know can come in handy later in life.
There’s no need to worry that, in sending your child off to camp, you are letting them loose in the world of “Lord of the Flies.” We have plenty of rules and procedures in place designed to keep all of our campers as safe as possible. Safety is always our first priority. But our very close second priority is to offer the girls a world in which they have agency, responsibility, and daily experiences that challenge them, and even make them a little nervous or uncomfortable.
Not to worry—they won’t be hiking off into the woods by themselves in search of nearby ravines, as I once did. But I can promise you that every single camper will experience, at least once in their time at Rockbrook, that same exhilaration I felt the first time I ever felt a sense of ownership over an accomplishment that was fully and completely my own.
The first time I ever saw Rockbrook was in July of 1999. I was eight-years-old, and my two-week session was to be the longest I had ever been away from my parents. I was so nervous that I could hardly sit still in the car ride up the mountain. Whenever anybody asked me, of course, I’d tell them that I couldn’t wait for camp to start. I had memorized the activities listed in the catalogue, and picked out exactly which ones I was going to sign up for first (Riflery, Archery, Sports and Games, and Tennis, if you were wondering). I was excited. But I was also scared to death.
I vividly remember standing halfway up the hill that day, with my counselor’s hand on my shoulder, watching as my parents got into their car to leave.
It’s not too late, I remember thinking to myself. I can still call to them, or just jump in the car and let them take me home.
But I stayed quiet, and I stayed put (I was much too stubborn, even then, to admit that I might have been scared), and it wasn’t long after I saw their car disappear down the driveway that I forgot all about those butterflies that had been giving me second thoughts. That moment on the hill was the only instant of homesickness that I ever remember feeling at camp. Of course, thinking about it logically, fifteen years later, I know that there must have been other moments in which I felt lost and overwhelmed in this new environment—but those moments are so fully overshadowed by the memories of my first camp friends, the first time I ever held a bow, and my first time stepping into the most wonderfully boisterous Dining Hall my eight-year-old eyes had ever beheld, that only that first instant of uncertainty has managed to stick in my memory.
There are plenty of campers, new and returning, who come to camp every year and don’t look back, just as I did. They are too excited and too busy to have any time for homesickness. But there are just as many, if not more, who don’t find it so easy to be away from home for the first time.
I have seen campers deal with homesickness every year that I have been at camp, each in her own way. There are those who hold it in, keeping a stiff upper lip with the understanding that it’ll get easier if they don’t think about it. There are those who become sad and listless, and can’t bring themselves to fully partake in their activities. There are those who throw temper tantrums. And then there are those who are simply scared, terrified to be away from the safety net that they know and trust for the first time.
As a parent sending your child into someone else’s care for the first time, I know that the thought of which of these reactions your own daughter will have must be at the forefront of your mind. The truth is, there’s no way to tell what form her homesickness will take—if any at all—until the day comes. It may be that your daughter takes to the camp lifestyle like a duck to water, and will beg you on closing day to let her stay forever. On the other hand, it is just as possible that you will be getting a letter from her three days into camp, begging you to come and fetch her right away, with her tearstains circled on the page for good measure.
Your first instinct upon finding out that your daughter is scared and upset without you will of course be to come and rescue her immediately. After all, if she’s afraid, then how could she have the presence of mind to learn and grown in all the ways that camp has to offer? If she is crying to her counselor during rest hour, how will she have the time or energy to make friends with her peers? While this is a perfectly understandable response, I hope you’ll think twice before taking the step of ending her camp experience before it’s really even begun. And it might not be easy. In all the preparations leading up to camp, in all the conversations with your daughter about what it will be like for her to be away, it’s easy to forget that your daughter’s homesickness will be just as hard for you.
So if the moment comes that you find yourself reaching for your keys, considering driving to Brevard to pick up your daughter without a second thought, here are a few things I hope you’ll remember:
Whatever form homesickness takes, it is almost always fleeting. The first few days of camp—when your daughter is still working through the first stages of friendship with her cabinmates, figuring out her way around camp, and feeling like she just doesn’t quite “get” camp yet—are always going to be the hardest. But things move fast at camp. Within a week, she will have at least one friend whom she will consider her Best Friend Ever, she will be navigating the camp property like a pro, and singing the camp songs at mealtimes just as loudly and enthusiastically as everyone else. Chances are, by the time you’ve received the artfully tearstained letter, she will already have forgotten that she ever asked you for rescue.
Our staff knows how to help her. Between your daughter’s counselors, her activity instructors, and the camp directors, she will be surrounded at all times by compassionate adults wanting to help her to love camp as much as we do. Our staff is trained intensively, taught to recognize the signs of homesickness, even if your daughter is doing her best to hide it. Whether she needs to talk it out, or just to be distracted until the feeling passes, the Rockbrook staff is there to help.
She wants to love camp. This is often a tough one to remember: nobody wants to be homesick. She’ll see other campers enjoying all that camp has to offer, and she will want to be enjoying it right along with them. Lots of times, what homesick campers really want is not necessarily to be taken home, but rather to feel just as comfortable within the camp community as they do at home. Some girls reach that level of comfort right away, while others take a little while longer. If given the time to get her bearings, often the homesickness will vanish on its own.
We always appreciate your help. It might be tempting, in this instance, to ask us to let you speak to your daughter on the phone—after all, you have more experience than anyone in calming her fears and making her feel safe. We’ve found, though, that such phone calls nearly always make the situation worse—in fact, I can guarantee that every phone call home will end in tears. Even if hearing your voice makes her feel better at first, once she hangs up the phone, she will have to start the process of separation from you all over again. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t help! We know that you are the expert on your daughter. You know her favorite games, her comfort foods, the stories that can put her to sleep. The directors and your daughter’s counselors will be working with your daughter through her homesickness, and we are happy to talk to you anytime about any tips you might have on how to make her camp experience as rewarding as possible.
Hard as it is, she will come through it much stronger than before. It’s not always easy for us to recognize when a difficult situation is changing us in positive ways. If your daughter is homesick, all she will be able to recognize in the moment is that she is feeling scared and alone, and she would like to stop feeling that way. It’s a bit too much to ask for an eight-year-old to see that her current discomfort will make her a stronger, more independent person, which is why we as a staff and as parents need to remember it for her. Because there will come a triumphant moment for her as camp goes on, when she realizes that her homesickness is gone. But even if that moment never comes—even if her homesickness lasts the whole length of camp (which can happen, though it’s rare), she’ll still come out of it stronger than before. She will realize, maybe for the first time in her life, that she has the strength within her to withstand a truly challenging situation. She won’t forget that the next time another of those situations comes along.
Homesickness is a serious matter, and we treat it as such at camp. We never ignore it if a camper seems homesick; we are proactive about helping them through it, and keeping you, as her parents, updated on her progress. But the first brush with homesickness in childhood is not a circumstance to be avoided. It’s a formative, if sometimes painful experience, that prepares your child for those difficult moments to come—the first day of high school, the first day of a new job—when she might feel disoriented or out of her element, and help is not near at hand.
It’s important to prepare both your daughter and yourself for the challenges she might face in acclimating to camp. You should let her know that there is no shame in feeling homesick—in fact, it’s something that almost everyone feels at some point in their camp experience, whether or not they show outward signs of it. Most importantly though, it is critical avoid making any “pick-up deals,” or promises that you will come and get her right away the moment she asks. If your daughter knows the possibility is on the table, then what motivation is there for her to work through the issues on her own? Tell her how confident you are in her ability to make it through without your help—with your vote of confidence, and the knowledge that there’s no “easy out” at her disposal, she will be much more likely to grit her teeth and persevere.
Sometimes I wonder if I had actually called out to my mom, that day in 1999, if she would have let me climb into the car and drive back to safety. If she would have told me that we could leave camp for another year, taken me out for ice cream to make me feel better, then brought me home. I probably would have thanked her for it that day. I certainly would have felt more comfortable with that turn of events than I was standing on that hill with a virtual stranger.
But sitting here in the Rockbrook office fifteen years later, looking back on all the tangible ways I can point to that my experiences with camp have made me a better and a stronger person, I really hope she would have told me no.