Our Common Spirit

Counselor and two campers

Earlier this week I had an interesting conversation with our Education Intern Hayley about motivation, specifically about how we as educators can motivate children. This internship is focused on the concept of “Social Emotional Learning,” an approach to education that holds central both the emotional lives of children and the social landscape they navigate as they grow. SEL simply recognizes that educational efforts should address the “whole child,” not just her intellectual development. In fact, many educators are recognizing that ignoring kids’ emotional triggers and social conflicts is a serious impediment to their academic learning, and perhaps more importantly, to their ability to make responsible decisions. In classrooms, schools, and even some school districts there’s a growing awareness of the importance of SEL if we are to help our kids gain the wide range of skills they’ll need to be more successful and content later in life.

One important point to make in all of this— and it’s the reason we offer an internship in social emotional learning here at Rockbrook —is that SEL has a lot to do with community, with the nature and quality of our relationships with those around us. And you see, as we’ve said many times, camp is also about community. It’s about being aware of each other, about practicing a common spirit of kindness, caring and generosity so that we treat each other with respect. We talk about being a “Rockbrook girl” as someone who contributes enthusiastically to this positive spirit, who is encouraging and helpful as a result. What’s neat is that there are so many people here modeling these values, the character is contagious. It becomes a powerful force that not only inspires girls to be their best selves (particularly in how they treat each other), it also deepens their relationships with everyone in the community and draws us all closer together.

Grinning sliding rock camp girls

For this reason, we believe Rockbrook is an ideal environment for social emotional learning. In addition to what we do together and all our shared experience, Rockbrook is a tight-knit community defined by how we relate to each other: again, with an explicit ethic of kindness, caring and generosity. When girls join this sort of intentional community, when the culture of camp inspires everyone to be more kind, caring and generous toward each other, they naturally grow more self-aware and develop greater social awareness along the way. This community builds relationship skills like cooperation and compassion, and of course all these forces are what drives the incredible camp friendships your daughter is enjoying.

So the answer to Haley’s question about motivation springs from this focus on community. Around here, girls are less driven by extrinsic rewards and goals, and more motivated by how an action will affect their relationship with someone. We discussed how girls make decisions within this web of relationships, and are generally careful to consider the emotions and needs of others. Thanks to the powerful community spirit at camp, behaviors are motivated by being a “Rockbrook girl,” being the caring, kind, generous, and sympathetic person we all admire. It’s what we mean around here by “RBA:” “Rockbrook Appropriate.” There’s a culture defining ethic at camp we all understand, and that serves to both motivate us and guide our decision making.

I may sound like a broken record when it comes to talking about the benefits of camp, so please forgive me. I’m just constantly made aware of how great this experience is for girls. Even though it’s wrapped in the guise of silly fun, thrilling adventure, and liberating creativity, camp really makes a difference in these girls’ lives. And it’s my daily joy to be a part of it.

A group of adventurous girls signed up for a special stand-up paddle boarding trip we offered today. It was a short drive from camp south to the Dupont State Forest where they met Charmaine Saulsbury of Dancing Trees Yoga, who would be the girls’ instructor for the morning. Charmaine teaches “SUP” and other yoga classes here in Brevard, and is one of the few yoga instructors in the country certified by the American Canoe Association.

With absolutely perfect weather, and with enough boards for everyone, the group made their way to Lake Julia, a gorgeous forest lake with a mostly undeveloped shoreline. This lake is also usually deserted, as it was this morning, providing a wonderful, quiet, calm setting for the paddle boarding. After giving them a few simple instructions about standing and balancing on the boards, Charmaine led the girls out in the water where they practiced several yoga positions. Attentive balance is already important for yoga, even more so when perched on a narrow floating board! The whole morning was a nice blend of relaxation and physical activity in a beautiful setting, something completely new and engaging for the girls.

Camp girls with eye and ear protection

Fun Whatever You’re Doing

Camper Art Drawing

If you take a look at Rockbrook’s original catalog, the one published in 1922, the daily schedule includes something a bit startling. First of all the reveille was earlier, 7:15 instead of our 8am wake up bell today, but then at 7:35 there was the “Dip.” That’s right; originally at camp all the girls took an early morning swim in the lake, and as you probably know, our mountain stream-fed lake is well known to be “chilly” or “refreshing” (euphemisms for “cold”). Jumping in the Rockbrook lake that early in the morning was certainly an effective way to wake up, and knowing the campers those days took a “morning dip” everyday helps explain a particularly odd item on the early packing list as well: an all wool bathing suit. Just imagine slipping on your (probably still damp) one-piece wool bathing suit every morning for a swim in the Rockbrook lake before breakfast! Wow! The “Dip” survives today in a tradition we call “Polar Bear,” which is simply an optional event where girls get to jump in the lake before breakfast. Today three cabins made the foggy morning plunge, and even Sarah joined them. One by one, with the shout of “polar bear!” mid-jump, we had 33 three people enjoying their dip this morning… just like the old days.

It’s not too surprising that we had so many girls willing and enthusiastic about taking a polar bear plunge this morning. We are between our July mini sessions, so instead of 210 girls (when the mini sessions are here), we have 115 full session campers right now. Honestly it feels strange to have fewer girls here, but also really nice because these are generally the most deeply rooted Rockbrook girls, the girls who absolutely LOVE camp, who are their best selves, perfectly at ease, and literally delightful (full of delight!) when they are here. For these girls, getting to jump in a freezing cold lake first thing in the morning isn’t weird or some torturous tradition; it’s another opportunity to play, to clap, scream and cheer with friends. It’s a chance to feel something real, to have an unusual experience, and to prove that they can overcome initial hesitation. Here too, like so many things at camp— activities and chores alike —being with friends you know and love deeply, makes whatever you’re doing fun.

learning to kayak
camp yoga class pose

The same could be said for all the activities that filled our morning. The creativity of pottery being glazed, threads and fibers woven into patterns, paint and dye saturating white paper and simple t-shirts. The concentration and determination required to balance on one leg and pull up the Alpine Climbing Tower, or to paddle a kayak through the lake in a straight line, or to fire a 22-calibre rifle with both accuracy and precision. The sheer muscle and effort propelling girls swimming “Mermaid laps,” smacking tennis balls on the courts, or running during the free hour before lunch. The sort of unleashed silliness that inspired so many side ponytails today (including one for me!). Song after song sung louder than usual in the dining hall during lunch… all these and certainly more, were enhanced and made more meaningful by the people and their relationships with each other here at Rockbrook.

girls camp sign along

Our evening program tonight began with everyone gathering in the hillside lodge for a special program of stories and songs presented by our friend Liz Teague. Liz is a singer/songwriter who lives nearby in Asheville, who also worked at Rockbrook years ago as a hiking guide, and whose daughter now works as a counselor. Liz brought her guitar and with help from Sarah and few other staff members, sang several old-time camp songs: “The Cider Song,” “Mountain Dew,” and “How Did We Come to Meet Pal,” for example. Liz also performed her classic “Frog Song,” a Rockbrook favorite about a frog who, after falling into a tub of milk, escapes by kicking enough to make butter. We had campers help by acting out verses of “The Rooster Song” and playing along with homemade instruments like rattles and drums. As the sun set outside, we all enjoyed the fire in the fireplace while we laughed and sang together. We closed the event with everyone making a quick s’more (How could we not with an inviting campfire blazing right there?).

Your daughter will tell you she’s having fun at camp, and you’ll probably think she means dressing up, singing songs, and enjoying all the activities available here. But it’s more than that. She’s also having fun simply being here with all these amazing friendly people (forming real friendships), energized by the positive community spirit, loved and supported by Rockbrook.  It’s truly astonishing!

Girls camp cabin

Fueled by Friendship

The last few days of a camp session have a new momentum, a slightly accelerated pace and intensified rhythm that feels a little like the finale of a fireworks show. There’s a flurry of events that cascade into a blur of activity and emotion. The whole session culminates with different moments of celebration and reflection when we gather as a community and enjoy each other’s talents and accomplishments. Each event is a beautiful reminder of how we’ve grown, and grown together, over our time together at camp. You’ve never seen such support! These girls all mean so much to each other now, it’s amazing to watch.

Cast of Fairy Tales Camp Party

A good example of this community festivity is the session banquet. Essentially an all-camp party, the banquet is a themed dinner planned by our 9th grade campers (known at camp as the “CAs”). These girls select a secret theme on the first day of the session and then work to transform the dining hall for the party. They work on costumes, music, decorations, the menu, and rehearse group dances and skits to entertain the rest of the campers and staff. This session’s CAs presented their “Into the Storybook” banquet complete with a cast of different fairy tale characters: Little Red Ridinghood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Peter Pan, Snow White, Three Blind Mice, Hansel and Gretel, and others.The girls did a great job decorating the dining hall, covering every inch of wall with floor-to-ceiling posters depicting scenes from fairy tales. They served “Maleficent’s Mac and Cheese,” “Peter Pan’s Popcorn Chicken,” “Jack’s Magic Green Beans,” and “Poison Apple Slices.” The tables included souvenir cups, candies, and streamer decorations. With a large area cleared for a dance floor, soon the entire camp, fueled by friendship, was singing, dancing, and having a great time.

James and the Giant Peach Kids Production

Another community celebration was the presentation of this session’s musical, “James and the Giant Peach.” Over the course of the session, 55 campers, under the direction of 4 staff members, rehearsed songs, built scenery and props, and memorized lines to present this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s popular children’s novel. The story presents the fantastic adventure of orphan James, the magical garden insects he befriends and their journey across the ocean inside a giant peach. It was a joy to watch. The girls really had fun acting the parts, singing the songs, and at times being silly on stage for a laugh. During the show’s intermission, the Junior, Middler and Senior dance classes each presented a group dance. Showing off their moves, choreographed for every dancer to move in unison, it was entertaining and impressive to see what the different age groups could do.

Closing Camp Fire girl presenters

One of the most beautiful moments of the session, our closing campfire or “Spirit Fire,” is another example of how close we’ve all grown at camp. Dressed in their white uniforms, the girls and their counselors all crowd around a glowing campfire to sing some of the more traditional songs and to pay tribute to the experiences shared, the deep relationships formed, and the personal strides made while together at camp. It’s a time to reflect on what camp means to us, to hold our friends close, and to marvel at the Rockbrook Spirit that makes camp special. Campers and counselors are invited to address the group too, sharing their thoughts about camp.

Olivia Vasquez, who is a new counselor this summer, spoke particularly well, and I thought you’d enjoy reading part of what she said.

“The Rockbrook community is a unique and funny thing, hardly something you can explain without jumping into it. It’s so incredibly tight-knit, which can make new people feel unsure and hesitant. How can you fit into a place already so beautifully woven together? But it’s through this same closeness that the magic can happen. That suddenly, before you even know it, you become part of a family you wonder how you’ve gone so long without.

The community here is joyful. When friends and family ask me how it is, I tell them, “It’s somewhere I can be happy all the time.” Not that I need to be or can’t be sad — If I am sad, there are always open arms and ears ready to listen. But if I want to be happy, there is someone to share my joy, to celebrate even the smallest victories, to remind me that there are few more freeing things in the world than to express the deepest gladness you hold inside you.

And so, in these few weeks I’ve spent here in the heart of the wooded mountain, witnessing the magic of my first banquet, the sweetness in the sound of our cabin’s laughter, the realness of the spirit of Rockbrook, I have ended up different, and yet the same. More myself, and yet less about me. These campers have made me laugh, cry and search for answers. Counselors and directors have done the same. But Sofie said it pretty perfectly the other day when she said that no matter what happens, we’re all just here— at Rockbrook and on Earth —to walk each other home. And what an honor it has been, is, and always will be, to walk with each of you.”

The Spirit Fire closed with everyone lighting a small white candle and forming a row around the lake. As we sang softly and candlelight reflected from the lake back onto everyone’s face, it was a beautiful summer camp moment. What could be better than being surrounded by all these friends and filled with so many great memories from our time together? It was the perfect way to close what truly has been an amazing, wonderful session.

Camp all girls Uniform

What’s Familiar Inspires

Zipline Course Kid

Ordinarily after the first week of a camp session there’s a subtle change. Like in a song when the key slides up a half step, there’s a modulation of the feeling, a change that’s both an elaboration and a settling. Life at camp begins to take on more energy and feel more comfortable at the same time, and today I really noticed it. By now the girls have rotated through different activities and visited most every area of the camp. They’ve met almost all of the counselors and activity instructors. They’ve learned the rhythm of our daily schedule, looking forward to the activity time, but also the slots of free time, meals and snack breaks. Most importantly, they grown more comfortable with all of the other campers, getting to know them through the constant shared experience of camp life. Our days now are more content by virtue of mutual familiarity (like a family) with everything and everyone living here together at Rockbrook.

This familiarity, which can also be understood as a strengthening of our community, ironically leads to new experiences too. Hearing stories from friends inspires you give a new camp activity a try. Fly through the air on the zip line! Noticing a shady rock by the creek inspires you to sit and relax there before lunch one day. Learning the camp songs inspires you to sing them even louder in the dining hall. The lake feels more refreshing than cold, “sprickets” (camel crickets) become more like friendly attendants than intruders, the sounds of the forest at night more soothing than unnerving. With a growing feeling of safety and relaxation, the girls also let more of their true selves shine through. Such a relief, that openness feels great. You can just see it on their faces all over camp, laughing and playing so easily, greeting everyone cheerfully, and growing closer to each other as a result.  That’s right; the deepest bonds of friendship are forming now at camp, and it’s very cool to see.

Kayaking Skit

Saturday is a day of regular camp activities, but before lunch we hold an assembly on the hill (under the old walnut tree). It’s a chance for camp bonding, announcements, recognizing the cabins with the inspection scores, and counselor skits. The sports and games instructors demonstrated, hilariously, how to play volleyball when duct taped together. The kayakers paddled frantically away from a tsunami (bucket of water!), and the yoga instructor entertained everyone by simply reciting several yoga-related puns. It was all good silly fun to remind the girls about the activity options available to them. Each age group cheered and sang their line songs, and the whole camp exploded when when we sang “Rockbrook Camp Forever.”

Happy Ice Cream Campers

The first big surprise of the day happened right after lunch, and to everyone’s delight it was “Biltmore Train.” Before it was the tourist destination it is today, the Biltmore Estate ran a commercial dairy selling milk and ice cream locally, and making deliveries of their dairy in a truck decorated with a train motif (The Vanderbilt family was well known in the railroad business). It soon became a tradition for Rockbrook girls to enjoy Biltmore ice cream, with the girls meeting the truck/train as it pulled into camp. The Biltmore dairy has since closed (It has a more tourist friendly winery now.), but we celebrate the memory by holding an an all-you-can-eat ice cream party once per session. Today we lined up 6 giant tubs of ice cream on tables under the hemlock trees, and our brave counselors wore our their arms hand dipping cone after cone for the campers. Once receiving their cone, the girls raced to get back in line (to the end of the “train”) for another. Under the warm sunny afternoon sky, we all enjoyed a high-spirited, sugar-charged treat.

The second surprise was tonight’s evening program, a disco-themed all-girl dance. Naturally, we all had a great time dressing up for the dance— shiny dresses, tie dye t-shirts, rounds glasses, and head bands setting the tone. Marcus, DJ Dog, set up his lights and sound system in the gym to keep everyone dancing, and we served lemonade and cookies while girls played outside blowing bubbles and making sand art necklaces. For a couple of hours it was non-stop disco, group dances to familiar pop songs, and zipping around the gym to the music. All girls, all fun, all good.

Hippy Disco Girls

Fun is for Sharing

muffins at camp rockbrook

You probably already know about our daily muffins, about how we have a baker who arrives early in the morning to bake a surprise flavor of muffin for everyone at camp to enjoy around 11am. It’s an exciting, homemade snack between activity periods that’s a highlight of the day for many of us. Word spreads pretty fast once the Hi-Ups pass the first muffin through the window on the dining hall porch, like today when a brand new flavor appeared: Cookie Crumble. They were amazing! Just look at them… huge chunks of Oreo cookie pieces in a soft vanilla muffin. Needless to say, all the extras seemed to disappear without a crumb remaining.

horse camp leading

One of the coffee mugs here at camp —no doubt acquired at some point from the local Goodwill store— has three cartoon animals, a bear, a dog and a sheep, playing jump rope together, and proudly declares in red letters, “Fun is for Sharing.” More than just a cute mug, its message seems particularly true here at camp. After all, we share just about everything here and have great fun doing it. Like every true community, we do so much together— eat our meals, play, and create. We interact with each other all day, have conversations, communicating our insights, joys and frustrations. We wake and sleep at the same time. We open up to each other sharing our emotions, supporting each other with caring and compassion. We share the work of camp life too— setting up and cleaning up. While there are moments when we might enjoy time by ourselves, like reading on the hill or making a friendship bracelet in a porch rocking chair, more than likely we’ll be having fun with someone else or a group of people. Camp fun is inevitably shared fun.

summer camp free swim

Camp life is likewise a wonderful tangle of heart-felt relationships. It’s more fully human in that way. By always including others, by beginning with the ties of community, it helps us develop personal qualities that thrive in company. It provides real evidence of just how rich the world can be when it includes a range of perspectives, the unexpected quirks, and creative ideas offered by others. Life lived closely with others, as it is here at camp, is inevitably a source of humor, surprise, and many kinds of intense feelings. Never bored, we’re connected instead. Sure, being upset can sometimes be part of this community life, but with a basis of caring, kindness and generosity, we can work through that struggle too.

All good stuff, but there’s a habit that can form from all of this experience, and it’s a habit that I think you’ll appreciate. Maybe it survives only as a hunch, or a faint memory after the intensity of living in the camp community, but it’s this; being with others is the way to have fun. If you’re bored, then get together, be close. Rich entertainment comes through personal relationship. Camp teaches this lesson because we live it everyday. Our fun is that much better because we’re with others, not abstracted through an electronic device or flickering screen. So when you’re bored, do you reach for a screen, or do you look for a conversation with a real person? “Social” media is at best a weak substitute for real sharing, real fun. Maybe there’s not always someone around, but whenever there is, it can be fun. I hope that’s a hunch that can inspire us long after camp.

country costume camp counselors

An example of this collective spirit happened tonight during our evening program when we held an all-camp campfire with an Appalachian mountain theme. This sort of campfire program is a tradition of sorts at Rockbrook called “Jug Band.” Akin to the old television show Hee-Haw, the counselors planned a variety show of songs, musical performances, skits and jokes. Of course, we included costumes and invited everyone to dress up with bandanas, overalls, hats and anything “country” they could think of. We sang lots of songs, like “Mountain Dew,” “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” and “Wagon Wheel,” for example. The campers helped tell some of the jokes too: “Why was 6 afraid of 7? …Because seven ate nine!” Sarah made an appearance dressed as “Granny” and helped lead several of the songs. Here in the mountains of western North Carolina, set in woods beside huge rocks and ancient trees, and glowing from the campfire light, we sang and laughed together into the night. Yes, it was a lot of fun. What could be better?

summer camp girl friends

Oh So Happy

There are several all-camp events that close the main sessions at Rockbrook, and as we have finished today, we will have enjoyed them all. It’s important that these events involve everyone at camp because they represent the tight-knit community that has formed over the last few weeks, the feelings of camaraderie and appreciation we have for each other, and the unity gained from all of the moments— big and little —of shared experience during camp. The community of Rockbrook has grown stronger during the session, and while you sense it throughout each day, these final all-camp events make who we are as a group even more clear.

The “Banquet” is a great example. Our ninth grade girls, who we also refer to as “CAs,” are given the responsibility of planning our session Banquet, to select a secret theme, and then present an elaborate party based on that theme. Special music, almost 100 different hand-painted posters along with other decorations, food to match the theme, plus dance performances and skits in costumes— all make the event. There are souvenir, decorated cups and printed programs on each table, plus, of course, lots of candy to assure it’s a “sweet” party.

Banquet Girls
Banquet Friends
Banquet Teens

This session the CA girls presented a “Mario” banquet filled with characters from the Mario Brothers and Super Mario Nintendo video games. From Mario to Peach, Luigi to Toad, Donkey Kong to Daisy, there were colorful characters serving the dinner and performing several choreographed dances to some of the video game music. The campers, all dressed in this year’s RBC t-shirt, joined in several of the dances, turning the whole dining hall into a fun dance party. Occasionally pausing for a photo or a giant gulp of water to re-hydrate, all of us danced (laughed, smiled and jumped!), sang (screamed and shouted!), and ate (nibbled chicken fingers and fries, and chewed different candies!) together. We were hot and sweaty, but oh so happy having this much fun.

The closing campfire, what has been called our “Spirit Fire” at Rockbrook for 95 years now, is another example of an all-camp event that signifies the positive feelings of community we enjoy here. Different from the banquet though, this event is more reflective and carries deeper emotions. First, we hold it on the last night of camp. We all dress in our white uniforms. We sing our more traditional songs like “In the Heart of a Wooded Mountain” and “How Did We Come to Meet Pal” around the campfire. And we hear campers and counselors speak about their time at camp and what it’s meant to them.

More than anything, the Spirit Fire is a beautiful reminder of the camp community and the very real feeling of being respected and loved by a group of friends. We’ve forged a collective spirit over these last few weeks, supported by kindness, cooperation and care, and bubbling with enthusiasm and encouragement. The Spirit Fire is simply a focused moment defined by that spirit. As we sit together around the blazing campfire, with stars above and the sounds of crickets and night frogs all around, it’s hard to not get a little teary. It’s a wonderful experience.

It’s been a fantastic session… packed with action, and maybe a little too much singing and dancing, if that’s possible. Thank you for sharing your girls. We will miss them, and until then, look forward to singing and dancing with them again next summer.

Camp Spirit Fire Kids

Make New Mistakes

“So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.”
—Neil Gaiman

We awoke this morning to the rising bell as usual, and groggily got out of bed. (I’m sure somewhere on camp, girls get up with pep and energy, but on the senior line, we place a high value on sleep.) Once we woke up a bit, though, by sharing bits of news for the day at breakfast and playing a stimulating game of Ships and Sailors at morning assembly, we were ready to greet the day.

Today was the first day of a new rotation of activities. On the first day of activities, it’s as though the whole camp is refreshed and reenergized—girls are trying new things, or at least taking activities with new people. It gives campers a sense of variety, and asks them to choose whether they want to continue developing one particular skill or to try something completely new.

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While walking around camp, I got to see the benefits of both of these approaches to activities. I first walked in to a dance class full of senior girls, practicing for the upcoming dance show. Some of them had danced before for plays and musicals, while others were laughing about how it would take them quite awhile to learn a chasse. The mood in dance, though, does not distinguish the girls who have danced from those who never have. A counselor teaches in a calm tone, laughing right along with the girls as they try to get the moves at once. They show me the beginning of their dance, and they are all equally excited about the success of their ripple. The girls are equally excited about coming together to do the ripple. As I walked away from the dance class, it hit me how welcoming and inclusive the dance class had been. Dancing, particularly in front of other people, is a vulnerable and intimidating action. Yet here were ten teenagers, making progress together, but mostly feeling totally comfortable and happy trying something new.

I think this exemplifies the philosophy of activities at Rockbrook. We are focused on the process rather than the outcome. In this way, mistakes are not just okay—they are celebrated. When campers make mistakes, it means they have tried something new and challenged what they thought possible. The noncompetitive environment of Rockbrook helps campers feel safe and supported even when they do make a mistake. They feel intrinsically motivated to try new things without outside pressures.
Initially when I came to Rockbrook, I remember being hesitant about this philosophy. Coming from a competitive academic environment and skills-focused surroundings, I wanted my activity to focus on outcome. If a girl could not tie a figure eight knot at the end of climbing, then what was she really learning? Eventually, though, I realized that I missed the point. I think this is typical outside of camp—school and sports are so focused on an objective that we rarely consider the virtues of the process itself. For climbing, even when girls do not reach the top, they are learning to push themselves beyond what they thought their limits were, but also learning that sometimes it is okay to stop. Rockbrook’s philosophy has become so central to my perspective outside of life. Although objectives are still important, I have learned to slow down and consider all that I am learning along the way.

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I witnessed this today in climbing, actually. I arrived at climbing toward the end of the period, so Clyde Carter, the head of our outdoors program, was teaching the girls knots as the class was winding down. I saw girls trying to tie the knots, some ropes looking like a scrambled tangle, others coming close but it falling apart as they tried to tighten it. Clyde remarked in his gently humorous way, “They’re doing everything right, except tying the knot.” This was a perfect description of the feeling of following instructions step by step, but still struggling with an objective. There was no pressure to learn the knot, and some campers decided to put the rope away and get out of their harnesses. A couple of them were determined. One stood in front of Clyde and said assertively, “I will get this knot!” He then proceeded to explain it to her again and again until she could tie it.

In addition to creating a safe place to make new mistakes, the noncompetitive environment also encourages campers to be intrinsically motivated, rather than extrinsically motivated. They choose where they want their energy to go, whether it’s tying a knot, finishing mermaid laps, or going on a whitewater-kayaking trip. This gives them the power to set and achieve their own goals, not because they are a part of a team or because they need a good grade, but for the satisfaction of completing a task they choose to care about.

It is easier to make mistakes and to try new things in an environment that is noncompetitive, but it becomes even easier when that environment also does not take itself too seriously. We all had a great evening program that is best described as silly. The evening program was called Jug Band, and we all paid homage to the mountain heritage of Rockbrook. We dressed up in flannels and overalls, fashioned our own instruments out of hairbrushes and water bottles, and headed down to Vesper Rock for an old-fashioned campfire. We sang songs like ‘Mountain Dew,’ ‘Rocky Top,’ and ‘I Love Little Willy,’ while campers told their favorite jokes and counselors performed goofy skits. Everyone laughed and played along to the mountain tunes before the moon lit up the mountains and signaled that it was time for bed.

Unlike any other place I know, Rockbrook gives us subtle freedom and the realization that we should be making mistakes. We should never demand perfection from ourselves because it is only within trying new things, not taking ourselves too seriously, and being gentle with ourselves can we begin to take authentic ownership of our lives. These first session girls have one week of camp left, and we will continue learning these lessons every day that we spend at camp. When we leave, I hope we will continue to make new mistakes. I hope we continue to be brave enough to try new things and have the humility to laugh at ourselves when things do not go as planned. I hope we are able to write a paper on Romeo and Juliet or solve a hard math problem and take time to appreciate the process, not just the grade. I hope we are able to motivate ourselves to practice violin or practice our serves in tennis because we innately want to improve, not just because someone told us to. Ultimately, I hope our lives away from camp flourish because of our lives in camp.

Camp Jug Band

Face to Face Living

pottery camper at summer camp

The other day I was talking with a young counselor about camp and whether there was anything about the experience this summer that has surprised her. She had attended camp for 7 years as a camper already, so I was curious if she recognized anything different now that she’s older. She quickly said that she was having a blast with the campers in her cabin, and that she loves being a counselor because she gets to know the girls so well and do so much with them. She was surprised how “intense,” “emotional,” and “fun” camp is.

Put a little differently, life at camp is face to face living. We’re all in this together, sharing everything (costumes, food, pink eye —well, we try not to share that last one!). When we’re at camp we pay attention to each other constantly. We are very close, feel truly connected, to a lot of people. Being at Rockbrook means accepting the intimacy, thrills and challenges of community… but in exchange, building countless heart-felt relationships, deepening our humanity, and yes, having  a lot of “fun.”

By making this observation, I think this young woman, without knowing it, was also commenting on ordinary life outside of camp. Essentially, it lacks the closeness, the rich, personal experience that defines our days at girls camp Rockbrook. Ordinary American life, generally speaking, is more about individual consumption, privacy, personal advancement, and ego-centric entertainment— all while being mostly blind to the other people around us. As we speed along the course of our lives, tightly tethered to our smartphones, community is too often left in the dust. Feeling dis-connected, bored and alone, can easily be the sad remainder.

Painting Girl at summer camp

There’s an irony to this, too. Think of all the daily technology we utilize ostensibly to be more connected to each other: text messaging, emails, social media posts, and telephone calls. Thanks to modern communication technology, it’s simple to announce what you’re doing, ask someone a question, or look up information. The ease and convenience of using these technologies has made them ubiquitous threads of modern life. At the same time— and here is the irony —it seems they are isolating us as human beings. Sending a text message is a thin gruel compared to the deep feelings that accompany being present with someone you care about. An email conveys only a shadow of its sender. Facebook, despite its attempt to offer a “multimedia experience,” can’t touch the emotions of being with supportive friends. There’s no electronic translation for kindness. If our ordinary lives are increasingly defined by these diminished forms of communication, if we’re left with only these rarefied connections to other people, then, as we become more isolated, our humanity is going to suffer.

Thank goodness for camp! Here we feel more connected than ever despite (maybe because of) giving up our electronic communication devices. For good reason, we unplug to connect more fully to those around us. Life at camp feels good because it begins with wholehearted connections, with the messy and rewarding energy of a community. The contentment your girls feel at camp springs from living face to face, directly and without the filtering “convenience” of technology. It’s providing them proof that having kind, compassionate relationships with other people is a bumpy, fun path to a rich and rewarding life.

camp girl friends