Thursday, March 19, 2015

Summer Camp Part I

One of my earliest memories of summer camp was from when I was 5 years old, on my very first 3-day camp. All I remember is the pitch dark of the cabin at night, and the lonely sound of the train whistle across the lake. I remember being so homesick, and lying awake as the deafening total silence carried the train whistle to me for what seemed like an eternity.

I returned to camp every summer until the upper grades of high school. When I was at university and casting around for a summer job, I returned as a counselor for two summers. The counselors' real names were never used in all those years of camp; instead, they always went by nicknames that were often inspired by nature but could be anything at all. I chose Rhythm for my camp name—a gentle nod to my musical upbringing.

The first year was tough. I was a shy and socially anxious bookish type with a festering case of undiagnosed depression in my back pocket. I felt like a failure most days, and unprepared for the new challenges that herding groups of children brought. Mostly, I felt lonely and out of place, and the night train across the lake still sang its melancholy song.

That was the year they shocked the water, and every sip tasted like barely-diluted chlorine—worse than gulping the pool water with its skim of drowned bees. Nobody could bear to drink it, but trying to be a model of outdoorsiness in the blistering August heat forced me to chug the burning liquid or risk dehydration.

Midway through the summer, I came down with a terrible cough. It might have been from the onslaught of corrosive water, or it might have been from living in less-than-sterile conditions with packs of children. It might have been the time my cabin's sleep-out was foiled by a thunderstorm; we lugged our gear from one camp-out spot to the next, but eventually turned back and made a pitiful attempt to heat the food we had packed over a smoky fire while thunder rumbled overhead and rain poured down. I still had one camp left to counsel, and I armed myself with an array of cold medications and two bottles of cough medicine (one of Buckleys, and one of something less toxic-tasting).

I sipped cough suppressant throughout the day and night as if I were swigging from a flask, but it only seemed to grow worse as the week progressed. My voice faded to a hoarse, painful croak that had little power to exert leadership over my campers. My co-counselor and I were in charge of leading campfire late in the week. As I struggled to pull my weight, my co managed to elicit silence in the circle of faces by explaining that we'd all have to listen extra-hard when I spoke, because I had a "choir of angels" in my throat.

One night I tried to stifle my coughing as best I could, but I had no wish to keep my entire cabin awake. I headed to the washroom building, hoping to get through the coughing spell and get back to bed. But the coughing barely let up enough for me to snatch the odd breath here and there, so I curled up on the long counter across a couple sinks, trying to ease through the long hours until sunrise as comfortably as possible.

The week stretched on and it all became too much. I didn't have what it took. It wasn't just the illness incapacitating me; my personality was all wrong for the job. I didn't have any leadership qualities and never contributed ideas. I got through the summer, but was certain I would never be hired back as a counselor.

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