SUMMER CAMP NIGHTMARE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Ellin is away all day, but will answer comments when she gets back this evening! It’s that time of year 😀


Most people wax poetic when they talk about their idyllic summers at sleep-away camp when they were kids. Tennis, volleyball, waterskiing and other fun sports. Campfires, nature walks, bunk hijinks, and lasting friendships.

I had none of those wonderful experiences. I went to sleep-away camp one summer when I was thirteen.

I refused to ever go back again. I was miserable.

Me at around thirteen

My horrible experience was basically due to three factors. The first problem was my parents’ choice of camp. They sent me to a progressive, Montessori style arts camp called Bucks Rock Work Camp. The selling point for the camp was that there were lots of artistic opportunities but there was no schedule or requirements for the campers. Each child had to choose their own activities each day.

While this format is great for self-motivated kids with intense interests and actual talents, it was a disaster for me. I had no overpowering interest except for theater. And that was an organized activity that did have a specific schedule. So most days I wandered around. I tried jewelry making, art, and pottery. I took fencing classes and a few guitar lessons. But I was pretty aimless most of the time.

The second problem I had was my bunkmates. There were four of us in two sets of bunk beds. One of the other girls spent every night sneaking out the window to meet boys. The other two were best friends and overtly excluded me. It was very uncomfortable and demoralizing. I had other friends but this cast a pall over my camp life.

The third problem was the way the camp handled the casting of the big theatrical production of the summer. This was what I was looking forward to. This was the all-consuming activity I was waiting for.

The play was “Peer Gynt”. I auditioned along with hordes of other campers. And the lead females role narrowed down to two girls, me and someone else. I didn’t get the role. This would have been fine if they had done the reasonable thing and given me a subsidiary role. I was good enough to be the lead, so you’d think they could find some other part for me. But no. I got nothing. Not even a place in the chorus. This was a horrible thing to do to any camper. Anyone who was interested and had any skills whatsoever should have been allowed to participate.

Theater production in outdoor theater

But I was shut out completely. And I was devastated. A part in the play would have given me focus and purpose for the rest of the summer. Instead, I joined a small theater class. I did end up with a lead role in a scene we did from the “Madwoman of Chaillot”. (Great play choice for teenagers!) The problem here was that the counselor was the brother of a girl I grew up with. I had known him my whole life and we hated each other. We did not get along at all. So this turned out to be another unpleasant experience.

The whole situation stressed me out so much, I could not memorize my lines. They were actually quite hard to remember because they were the nonsensical, non-sequiturs of an insane woman. At the performance, I skipped a page and a half of dialogue.

The audience didn’t notice. In fact, I got a compliment I’ve never forgotten. An adult from the audience told me that they had been to a professional production of the play and that my performance was as good as the professional actress they had seen!

another photo of me at around thirteen

I called home once a week and cried hysterically every time. My parents offered to take me home but I refused. I decided to stick it out. I didn’t want to admit to or give in to failure.

Looking back, I now know that I had an anxiety/depressive disorder my whole life and I was probably spiraling into a pretty bad depression that summer. Going home might have been better for me, therapeutically.

But I proved to myself that I was strong and could survive a lot. So while I had an awful summer, I learned that I’m a survivor. That lesson has gotten me through a lot in life and I’m grateful I learned it so young.

27 thoughts on “SUMMER CAMP NIGHTMARE – BY ELLIN CURLEY”

  1. I think the problem is — like many others — is we give them what WE wanted, not what they want. Sometimes, it’s not easy to figure out what your child wants because they don’t have a lot of experiences to compare with. I sent Owen to a riding camp because that’s where I wanted DESPERATELY to go when I was a kid. He learned to ride, but it was a rough summer for him. They were a tough crew and he wasn’t very tough.

    He always liked horses, though … so that’s something.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have wonderful summer camp memories — and they’re NOT filtered through rose colored glasses.
      The Camps were sponsored by the Lutheran Church – so you knew you’d get a dose of religion but they were smart knowing they were dealing with kids.
      There was Camp Wilbur Herrlich and Camp Silver Bay — upstate New York – in the woods, of course.
      We slept in tents, had country breakfasts, weenie roast lunches and “pot luck” campfire dinners, topped by roasting marshmallows. Lots of trail blazing, swimming in the local lake ( I couldn’t swim — so I waded and pretended to swim), a little horse back riding (never enough horses for the kiddies so we double up). One of the best parts — stuck in my sense memory — around the campfire, sipping “bug juice” and singing songs like “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”
      I still have a merit of certification somewhere – earned when I was 13 years old. My counselor was a neat guy — patiently teaching a nerdy kid how to tie various knots and other camp-y things.
      We always returned home with happy memories, looking forward to summer camp next year.
      Hearing Ellin’s stories, guess I was a lucky kid.
      Camp was so blissfully different from life in ’40’s and early 50’s Queens – think the streets and homes in Archie Bunker’s neighborfood and you have a snap pic of our neighborhood.

      “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, higher – higher we go……….”

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think most camps are pretty good. I’ve only heard one or two bad experiences from people in my whole life. My camp was a wonderful place, just not right for me.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I was never a good mixer – but t felt thoroughly involved at summer camp. One of the reasons it’s remembered with fondnesss. I was one of a few (3 or 4?) kids of color — but that never was an issue. I loved the camrederie before I knew the word.

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    2. This camp was great for kids who had very strong interests and talents. You could explore your area at your own pace and spend as much or as little time as you wanted. That kind of freedom was appreciated by many kids.

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    1. I’m not sure if the camp owners/managers were responsible for the decision to banishing me from the play entirely. That might have been the decision of the drama teacher, who didn’t feel responsibloe for my camp experience as a whole.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had a similar experience Ellin. I went to camp when I was about 11 or 12 and promptly became sick. Maybe it was the water. I hated it and my parents took me home before a week was up. Never went back.
    Leslie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Leslie, My camp experiences were positive. Some kids were afraid — being away from home for the first time. I used to love the freedom. I spent lots of time reading — day and night between the camp activities. Sometimes, I’d stay up all night reading — by candlelight in the tent — til a counselor popped in and shussed me to sleep.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Glad your parents took you home, Leslie. Being sick made the decision easy. Unfortunately, I was only suffering psychologically. My parents were ready anad willing to take me home but I wouldn’t go. I think I would have been too humiliated.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think that summer camps are a thing in Australia. I never heard of anything like them when I was pre-teen reading “Donna Parker” and “Trixie Belden” books so I was intrigued by the idea that American kids got sent away to camp for the whole summer. I was a shy child and disliked being asked to participate in organised activities so camp would probably not have been for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Somesleepover “camps” are only for a week or two, like Boy and Girl Scout Camps. City kids would get sent into the “country” to enjoy nature and the outdoors for short periods of time. I’m not sure when 4 and 8 week sleepover camps came into being in the States. I usually went to day camps, 5 days a week and I loved those. I think those have been around for a long time.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Hmmnnn. Thinking summer camp might’ve fun for you — especially the shyness which I also had. I actually worked up courage to talk to girls at camp. My conversations probably wren’t memorable. We did “connect” a little around the campfire, roasting marshmallows and singing hymns. Least that’s how I remember it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. In Switzerland these camps are unknown but having lived in Canada for a while and reading a lot made me familiar with this. When I was just for 3 months in first class (in CH you start school in earnest at 6.5/7yrs) I was sent for 3 months to a ‘health clinic’ for children. My parents, being poor, couldn’t even bring me there, another part of the country, and I, then a very shy and fearful little girl, was the unhappiest human being ever… We were humiliated on a daily/hourly basis by the ‘sisters’ and although we had to write a weekly letter, we couldn’t express our misery because every letter was read by the adults and if you put something not positive the letter was shredded and you had to re-do it. When I returned home, marked forever as a homesick person, and told my parents my sorry and awful life I was submitted to, they were absolutely horrified. They apologized to me for months to come and of course had no idea about the going-ons as nobody was allowed to complain. A bit older I had two boys of the class falling in love with me, both (bizarrely) sons of preachers (and this was an ordinary mixed school, with just this freak assortment of dads with a life in faith), the one said that he also had a stay in a ‘Kinderheim’ (children’s home but not in the sense you know) and that this was the BEST time of his life; that he would put all his future children to one in a heartbeat…. it was quite clear that MY heart went rather to the other preacher’s son, although not for long!!!!
    I therefore know that these unfortunate experiences may well form our life more than we’d like to admit and care. You seem however to have made lemonade of your lemons, seeing your ‘talk-career’ 😉

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