Seeing Past Failure

kid on pottery wheel

It is OK to fail.

I repeat: it is OK to fail.

This is not something we hear everyday, or something we ordinarily tell children. For most, we’re not looking for failure; we want success! But if thought about differently, this is advice we don’t hear enough. Getting that C on your math test or missing the bullseye in Archery may seem like the end of the world, but they don’t have to be.

I majored in Comedy Writing and Performing in college. Junior year, as part of my studies, I spent a semester at the Second City, a well known institute for comedy in Chicago famous for turning out comedic stars like Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert. An important lesson we were repeatedly taught during my time there was that not only is it OK to fail, but you have to fail. You have to go in front of an audience and try your stand-up or sketch act and it has to at least fail a few times so you can figure out what is funny and what is not. Failing, in comedy, is how you find your voice. As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, it was the most freeing thing for me to hear that failing now and then was a good thing.

The American composer and music theorist John Cage had this to say: “Nothing is a mistake. There is no win and no fail. There is only make.” For him, especially in creative endeavors, what seems like a failure in truth contains the seeds of learning as long as one is determined enough to “do the work.”

weaving on lap loom

That same lesson can be applied to camp. Accepting failure is especially important when, as a camper, you are learning new things all the time, whether it be in an activity or in learning to live within a community for the first time (communication! compromise!). Learning something new means expecting and accepting mistakes. It means you are going to fail once or twice or a few times before successful habits and skills come to be.

I teach Curosty, Rockbrook’s weaving activity, where girls are learning something new just about every time they enter the cabin door. For lots of campers, it’s their first time ever seeing a loom, let alone using one. For some, the act of weaving by hand is a new feeling completely. For them to expect to be perfect at it, not make a single mistake, from the get-go is a ridiculous expectation because they usually never are. They’ll have to tie and re-tie knots on their bookmarks a few times. All the potholder loops will pop out when they’re casting off their work. And there will usually be gaps in their first reed basket. But that’s the best way to learn: by failing. Correcting failure, seeing past it, always leads to growth. With the right attitude, moments of failure can blossom into real learning.

Camp is a safe place for this kind of learning too, because, no matter what, you know you are supported and encouraged by your friends and the entire Rockbrook community. Here at camp, we’re all experimenting, all discovering, and all failing now and then along the way. We’re all in it together. If there’s any place to fail and fail safely, it’s here.

girls summer camp campers

Stretching Ourselves

girl camp equestrian

Part of the reason most of us come to camp is because we want to grow. Another way of saying this, of course, is that we want to be challenged. As I walked around camp today, I realized how unique Rockbrook is in giving each camper the freedom to make choices about how to stretch herself. Girls choose their own activities, and within those activities, there is a lot to do, but girls are constantly encouraged and given the choice of how they want to stretch their capabilities.

As I walked around camp today, I saw a lot of stretching. This was literal in gymnastics, because when I arrived, everyone was stretching their bodies, loosening up for the games ahead. The campers were excited to play the game “Stick It,” in which someone tells them a move right before they jump on the trampoline, and they have to stick it afterward. In the class, there was a wide array of ability levels. Some girls had grown up as gymnasts whereas others had never done a cartwheel. Everyone, though, had fun, and were able to challenge themselves. Whether they wanted to finish with perfect form, or whether they learned what a pike was, everyone stretched themselves in ways they chose to. The counselor was around the whole time, encouraging every girl, whether she was the star tumbler or the novice.

basketball camp game
alpine tower girl climber

The same spirit was alive and well in sports and games. Campers were playing the game “Knockout,” which is a variation on basketball where girls are trying to shoot a basket in the hoop before the person behind them. If they don’t do this, they are out. What was impressive about this, though, was that the game was congenial the whole time. The spirit of Rockbrook is not competitive, so the mood was light as girls tried to shoot their baskets. When campers got out, they chilled out by the fan and the counselor (who had been playing, but got out) was carrying on conversation until a winner was declared. It’s this cooperative, noncompetitive spirit that enables campers to constantly support each other and feel safe stretching themselves beyond what they think their limits are.

This was especially true in climbing, where I met up with a group of juniors who were trying to ascend the Alpine Tower. I sat on the log next to a junior and asked her about her climbing experience in the past. She had never climbed at Rockbrook before, but had climbed a few rock walls at home. I asked her how she wanted to go up, and she pointed to the hanging logs, the hardest way up. “I’m going to try, even though I’ve never done it before,” she said. It was an impressive moment—for someone who had never gone on the Alpine Tower to go up the hardest way, she was excited to stretch beyond her comfort zone. As I looked around, though, I realized that Rockbrook was creating a great environment for her to be unafraid to try something hard. All around the tower, I heard cheers of “You’ve got this!” and “You can do this!” These were not prompted by the counselors (who were encouraging in their own ways), but something the campers did intuitively.

The atmosphere of camp is one that asks us to always lift each other up, and in doing knowing that others want the best for us and are not focusing on our failures, it makes it easier to challenge ourselves to do hard things. For some girls, even being at camp is a challenge in its own way. Girls are leaving the familiarity and comforts of home, stretching their ability to be independent and make friends outside of their immediate surroundings. Today, now that girls are settled and we have a schedule, it was really fun to see girls who had a bit of homesickness yesterday start to really embrace camp, to think, “I can do this, and it’s going to be fun!” They are finding friends, and they are finding that they are being lifted up by counselors and friends who see the best in them and want to know all about them. As we continue to get settled in, we will continue finding new ways to challenge ourselves and grow in ways that only camp can provide.

Camp gymnastics girls

Deeply Encouraging

Girl Horseback Riding
Girl Horse Riding

As our first week of camp hit its stride today, the campers seem to have simultaneously relaxed and energized. It makes sense when you think about it. After these first few days, any initial jitters have been calmed by the friendly atmosphere here, the smiling counselors who are always ready to encourage, the overall feeling of openness and acceptance that colors everything. At Rockbrook, there’s simply no pressure to measure up; we don’t compete for awards or recognition for being the best at something. Instead— and this can take a few days for girls to realize —the camp environment, Rockbrook’s culture, substitutes caring for criticism. It finds friendship before judgment, silliness and laughter before concern.

Within the structure of scheduled activities and periods of free time, the girls here have the freedom to try new activities (climbing, shooting, weaving!), to follow their whim meeting and playing with scores of wonderful inspiring people, and to explore what they enjoy, expand what they know, and develop who they are. It’s a strange but wonderful feeling of deep happiness and well being that springs simply from being in this kind of genuine supportive community.

Camp Zip Line Thrill

Out of this relaxation bubbles energy and excitement. It’s inevitable; with this freedom comes all sorts of activity, from thrilling outdoor adventure activities like screaming down the RBC zip line course, to the concentration and creativity that combine to tie friendship bracelet patterns. Letting go at camp inspires you to overcome challenges, to join a big group playing gaga ball, for example. It stiffens your nerve at the top of the 50-foot tall water slide. It elevates your voice to sing louder in the dining hall. Suddenly, wearing a crazy costume, or making up a dance with your cabin mates, or lying on the grass in the dark to stargaze, or getting really dirty in the creek— all seem perfectly normal. Relaxing into camp life, fully embracing the contagious kindness of our camp community, is deeply encouraging.

Ceramics Camp Girl

Of course, this all adds up to what the girls simply call “fun.” It’s fun to have friends like this, to be with them all day and night, to get to know each other this genuinely. It’s fun to feel supported by everyone around you, and thereby find the confidence to step far beyond what you thought was your limit. It’s fun to make things, to be this active all day, and laugh this much. It’s fun to exercise your personality so thoroughly, to empower your creativity, your compassion, your awareness of the world around you. It’s fun to have a break from “real life,” from (yes, believe it or not) the distractions of technology, and thereby discover so much to experience and appreciate. The girls will say it was fun to roast s’mores over the campfire, to ride horses, and to swim in the lake, but I think there’s something more fundamental and lasting at work.

Today, after just a few days, it was so entirely clear. For your girls, camp provides the freedom they crave, the challenges they need, and the full-bellied fun they love.

Camp Party Costumes

A Haven of Encouragement

Camp dancing girls in mirror


I was talking with a CIT (17-year-old “counselor in training”) recently, and she told me something interesting. She said, “Rockbrook taught me how to dance.” She had been a camper for many years before this summer training to join the Rockbrook staff, so I wasn’t too surprised, thinking that she had probably taken our dance activity and learned different moves there. But she went on explaining that before camp she was too shy to dance at all, “so embarrassed,” she remembered “hiding at middle school dances.” And then she said something really profound. “Rockbrook proved that I’m stronger than I think.”

What a wonderful affirmation of our mission at Rockbrook! Driving everything we do— from the program activities, special events, adventure trips, to the silly songs we sing at meals, for example, there is a camp culture that emphasizes kindness and generosity, attention and care for all those around us. For the counselors and campers alike, camp is a haven of encouragement, perfectly suited to foster self confidence, resilience and ultimately self esteem. Our goal for everyone here at Rockbrook is for them to realize that their authentic self, who they really are, is strong and beautiful. We hope camp provides real experiences proving that deep strength and beauty. You might think, you can’t dance, because maybe someone once gave you a funny look, but let’s try it and you’ll see you can! Figuring that out, and applying that confidence to other things, is such a fantastic lesson for young girls to learn, and camp makes it possible.

girls horseback rider in two-point position

A trip down to the horseback riding facilities of Rockbrook, down past the Carrier House, through the tunnel, and left at the French Broad river, never fails to impress. Members of the equestrian staff (all nine of them) will be hustling with barn chores, working with horses and campers preparing for the riding lessons that happen throughout the day. With 30 horses in the RBC herd this summer, and at last count, 88 girls taking horseback riding lessons this session, there’s a lot going on! Many of the girls are brand new to riding, but have by now learned how to tack up, mount, and feel comfortable on a horse. Most have quickly progressed, confidently walking and steering their mounts, over poles and in the two-point position. This photo shows instructor Gabby leading Coby, a 20-year-old, chestnut Thoroughbred gelding, as he helps a camper experience her first trot. It’s a great example of how the Rockbrook riding instructors are excellent and genuinely love introducing girls to riding, teaching them new skills, and helping advanced riders grow stronger and more confident. With this kind of quality instruction, these Rockbrook girls are really getting good!

camp water slide splashing

On the far side of the lake where the waterfall splashes in, there’s a dock and bridge leading to a set of stairs up a 30-foot tower. The top of that tower is the launching point for our water slide, affectionately known as “Big Samantha” (for no other reason than a few years back a Junior camper named it that, and it stuck). Made of soft vinyl that’s nice and slippery when we run a little water down it, the slide provides a 50-foot screaming, cool ride into the lake. One by one, the girls climb the tower, hurl themselves down the blue vinyl tarp, with spray splashing up, and finish by shooting out into the lake below. A short swim back to the exit ladders awaits, and then it’s back around for another slide!

indoor climbing wall camp girl

When it turned drizzly late this afternoon, the climbing instructors moved from the Alpine Climbing tower into the gym so they could set up the climbs on our indoor climbing wall. The wall takes up one corner of the gym stretching about 25 feet from the floor to the rafters. Being in the corner, one route up uses both walls, teaching the girls a climbing move called “stemming” often used in a dihedral (inside corner). The wall has colored tape marking six different routes which vary by the size, shape and placement of the holds. The most difficult portion in slightly overhanging, which requires significantly more finger strength just to stay on the wall! Today each girl who signed up for climbing picked 2 different routes to attempt. The instructors coached them along the way encouraging the girls to focus on technique rather than simply getting to the top— balancing, shifting weight, and making each move slowly and smoothly. It was great to see the girls understand this coaching and climb beautifully.

Girls Camp Campers

Renaissance Fair Opening Day

Opening Day Arriving Camper

We opened our June mini session this morning and welcomed 70 more campers to Rockbrook, joining the full session girls who arrived last week. About half of these were first-time Rockbrook girls, so for them today brought a particularly energizing mix of new faces, and waves of new sensations— the babble of the streams, earthy smells of the forest, and the whoops and cheers of the counselors. For the returning campers too, opening day is full of delight. You can feel the excitement all morning long, partly because it’s been pent-up for months now (in some cases all year!), but also because it’s so deeply felt. This is camp, and these girls are ready! Now with the dining hall full, and every camper and counselor charged with energy to spare, we have a powerful Rockbrook session underway.

As the mini session girls arrived, the full session campers and their counselors held a brief “Chapel” program focused on the theme of “Encouragement.” The Senior Line campers wrote and led the program. It included songs, like “Lean on Me”and “You’ve got a Friend in Me,” as well as quotes from Henry James about being kind, Maya Angelou, and others. It was a nice opportunity to think about why encouragement is so important and why it’s so valued here at Rockbrook for its role in forming a close community of people. Encouragement is simply a part of our camp culture.

After lunch and a brief break for Rest Hour, the whole camp enjoyed a very special afternoon event held on the lawn of the Clarke-Carrier House in the center of camp. This house, which predates the camp, was the childhood home of Rockbrook’s founder, Nancy Barnum Clark Carrier. Also known as the “Rockbrook House,” you can see its location on the camp map, and read more about its history, but it has a wonderful terraced lawn that was perfect for our event: a Renaissance Fair.

Renaissance Queen Kid
Renaissance Fairies
Renaissance Throne Kid

The event was amazing. It had more than 11 different activities for the girls, music, food, and thanks to everyone’s creativity, very cool costumes to bring the scene to life. There was an inflated jousting game, a water balloon catapult, a “photo booth” filled with Renaissance-inspired props, crowns to decorate, and wax candles to make. Down the path a little ways, there was a fairy garden, complete with bubbles and twinkling lights. There the girls could join a drum circle. Also nearby, counselors were painting faces, and braiding hair with flowers, leaves, and ribbons for decoration. A fortune teller offered to give advice and a henna tattoo artist decorated campers’ hands with small designs. There was plenty of food to enjoy as well, including roasted turkey legs, hunks of baguettes, popcorn, cotton candy, snow cones and cups of ginger ale. With so many options available, the campers had a blast going from one area to next. Some carried giant turkey legs, while others nibbled cotton candy. The costumes, face painting and decorations, plus the music and the backdrop of 100-year-old boxwood bushes and the historic camp house, all added up to make the afternoon unforgettable.

Catapult Queen kid
Renaissance Fortune Teller
Renaissance Jousting Game for Camp
Rockbrook Clarke Carrier House

Muffins and Mail

Muffins and Mail

Here’s a photo that illustrates a few very important things about life at Rockbrook. First notice what the girls are nibbling; it’s today’s flavor of muffin. As you may already know —since this Rockbrook tradition is truly legendary— we serve fresh baked muffins everyday between the first and second activity periods. Brigid and Becky, our camp bakers, surprise us with these special treats creating all kinds of unique flavors. Yesterday is was pumpkin chocolate chip, which is always popular, but today we enjoyed a completely new variety: vanilla bean, cherry muffins. Man, they were good! Rick explained that they soaked vanilla beans and used locally grown cherries in the recipe. Outrageous!

The girls are also standing in front of the camper mailboxes on the dining hall porch. Mail. Everybody loves it at camp. Being away from home and isolated to some extent from the outside world makes receiving mail even more delightful. Send us some news. Maybe add a silly joke, like one of these jokes for kids written by Sofie. Have you been sending letters to your daughter, or at least emails? She will love it, and if you’re lucky will write you back.

It looks like (By the way, clicking the photos of the blog will bring up a larger version) Ellie is holding a Hodge Podge project popular right now, a tie pillow. It’s a pillow made from two pieces of cloth “sewn” together by tying knots in strips cut around the edges. These are sometimes called ‘no-sew pillows.” They are quick and fun to make, and often become quite elaborate as the girls then decorate them with fabric paint, beads and other shiny bits.

Huge Tree and Camp Girls

Finally, this photo nicely typifies how happy and relaxed the campers are at Rockbrook. Quick to smile, embrace each other, and support their friends with true feelings of generosity and care, these girls are peeling away layers of habits and concerns, and discovering how good it feels to be who they really are. In the context of a community brimming with encouragement, these girls can’t help but blossom. It’s not magic, but it is marvelous.

Isn’t that an amazing tree! Just a root of it is bigger than two people! Located in the Pisgah Forest at an elevation above 5100 feet, it’s an example of an old-growth evergreen tree that’s very rare in the forest these days, following the extensive logging of this area in the early twentieth century. We stumbled upon it this morning while out hiking with the Hi-Ups (our sixteen year old campers). Of course we couldn’t just walk by without touching it, feeling it, smelling and even tasting it! And grabbing a quick snap to share.

Drumming Camp kids

The hour of free time after dinner we call “Twilight” brought the return tonight of our friend and master drummer Billy Zanski. He arrived from Asheville ready to teach any interested girls how to play the Djembe and DunDun drums, and to lead everyone in what essentially became a drumming dance party in the hillside lodge. Campers and counselors alike took turns drumming and dancing, each whirling their hands over the skins of the drums and their feet across the wood floor of the lodge. The whole scene was energizing and fun, a special kind of group experience that we love at Rockbrook.

The Breadth and Depth of Camp

Camp girls exploring a waterfall

In yesterday’s post I was struck by the abundance of activity at camp, the simple fact that a sleepaway summer camp like this has so many things occurring simultaneously. We saw that there is zipping and stretching, riding and shooting, jumping and flipping, knot tying and plenty of decorating. And of course these are just some of the clear examples that stand out from the more day-to-day routines of camp life. Think of all the conversations, the songs being sung, the meals prepared and enjoyed… all the materials and supplies. Throughout the day, we are all trucking up and down the hills of Rockbrook, negotiating the rocks and roots that define each path through the woods. There are trips to the cabin to change for Free Swim, down to the gym for a game of Ga-Ga, and up from the lower pottery studio. We have the rush of falling water all around us, the cheers of excited groups of girls, and the regular tone of our 100-year-old bell marking the change of activity periods. Also most days, girls are leaving camp on trips for kayaking one of the local rivers, for hiking in the Pisgah National Forest or the nearby Dupont State Forest (like High Falls in the photo above). From the earliest moment of the day to the last giggle at night before drifting off to sleep, there is a true breadth of experience at camp. It’s an incredibly rich life we lead at Rockbrook.

Girls having fresh muffins

But anchoring that breadth is a more fundamental dimension of experience, a depth that makes all the daily action of camp more meaningful.

The depth of camp experience rests firmly on the positive relationships we enjoy among all the members of this tight-knit community. There is a collective spirit here that inspires everyone to be kind, generous and compassionate, to respect and care for each other. It’s an ethos defining our culture and community, a basic attitude— Sarah calls it a “sweetness” —that leads naturally to encouragement and support for those around us. That’s the depth of camp. That’s the “Spirit of Rockbrook” that makes everything we do better.

I saw a wonderful example of this spirit at work tonight when we took our Mini Session Middlers and Seniors on a trip to Sliding Rock. We first hauled everyone up into the Forest for a picnic of hotdogs, Rick’s homemade cole slaw, chips and peaches. Then after each cabin group and their counselors finished eating, we held a massive game of elbow tag in a grassy field. As they raced from pair to pair, the “cat” chasing the “mouse,” the girls were so supportive, cheering and clapping for each other. It was a game completely free of criticism and competition, played simply for the fun of it. Some runners were faster and others slower. There was plenty of silly confusion, but what mattered was how much fun everyone was having together.

Girls grinning on sliding rock

Then at Sliding Rock, the girls did it again. Filled with excitement, they took turns stepping into the chilly mountain water and sliding in pairs or threes down the rock. Almost instinctively they held hands to support each other during the wild, squeal-inducing ride. Each trip evoked laughter and encouragement from the other girls watching, making the whole experience really great, and proving once again how much they enjoy doing things together.  You can’t help but be proud of these girls! Be sure to check out the photo gallery of this event. There are several really great shots.

Girls Grimacing on Sliding Rock

We topped off the whole evening with a stop at Dolly’s Dairy Bar so everyone could enjoy a cup or cone of their wonderful ice cream. Cold rushing water and a frozen sweet treat on summer night; that’s pretty good stuff. But together with all these wonderful friends, it’s the best.

Camp Kids eating Ice Cream at Dolly's Dairy Bar

Unconditional Support

Folks who arrive at Rockbrook are often struck by how being here, even for a short visit, feels so different from ordinary life. “Everyone is so friendly and enthusiastic,” and “Everyone seems so happy” are comments we often hear. It’s true; camp life is charged with a special form of community energy, one defined by caring, compassion, and kindness.

Girls supporting each other


Walking around camp today, I thought of another reason to explain this deeply felt contentment the girls enjoy here at Rockbrook. It’s because the collective spirit here, our “Rockbrook Spirit,” provides all of us unconditional support. Everyday, no matter the activity or the outcome, we know that our “true self” will be accepted, appreciated and respected by those around us. Rockbrook is simply a friendly and welcoming place where everyone is included, encouraged and supported. We’ve written before how camp is an antidote for “Community Deficit Disorder,” and as such is also a source of great contentment for girls. They will tell you “it’s so much fun,” or that they simply “love it,” but I think it’s this community spirit that’s really at work.

Zip Line Swing
Canopy Tour Bridge Kid

Everyday at Rockbrook includes adventure too. It might be hiking through the woods, climbing a rock face, paddling a canoe, or even facing something personally challenging like jumping off the diving board at the lake. This morning at breakfast, Christina announced that she would be taking groups of girls down our zipline throughout the day. Campers from all three age groups could sign up for an activity period (instead of whatever activity they had already scheduled) and take a couple of zippy rides in the woods high above the back of the camp. These two photos nicely evoke what this entails: some special equipment, walking across a high, rather wiggly, plank suspension bridge, and flying along a steel cable on a pulley. It’s at first a little scary to step off the launching rock, but with en-couragment and support, it’s all smiles in the end.

Perhaps a different kind of adventure, the evening’s activity got everyone excited, the kind of top-of-your-lungs screaming excitement that happens around here— a dance with the boys of Camp Carolina.  In fact, we held two simultaneous dances, the Juniors and Middlers staying here in our gym to dance with the younger boys, and our seniors loading up buses to drive over for their dance in Camp Carolina’s dining hall. We also made a “Dance Alternative” activity available for those girls who thought dancing wasn’t their thing. Overall these dances are fun for the girls because they are mostly about jumping around with your friends, being silly and singing to the music. They are the kind of lighthearted entertainment we all enjoy.

Camp Girls Dance
Camper Dance Moves
Girls Camp Dance