Wednesday 2 September 2015

Summer Camp, American Style

It is virtually impossible to summarise the eight weeks I spent at Camp Tel Noar into a blog of an acceptable length that remains interesting and worth reading. When I sat through mainly unhelpful-for-the-job-I-was-hired-to-do talks and so on during staff week a few buzz phrases were mentioned repeatedly and have stuck with me. One of those is that you cannot understand camp unless you go to camp. Tel Noar is a special place, one that I now have many great memories from and can look back upon with fondness. It is also one that I could not even begin to explain to you, but I will try anyway. 

When I signed up for Camp America just under a year ago now, I did not fully understand what I was signing up for. I had never been to camp. I had no idea what it entailed. At the time, and to an extent still now, I thought I had no skills that were of relevance and was unsure how to even begin the application. I remain firmly of the belief that very few people who sign up actually have any discernible skills but are able to sell 'know how to play football'. My exaggerated skill was nature related based on my time in the Combined Cadet Force at school. I could vaguely put up a tent and am fairly competent at putting one foot in front of the other and calling it hiking, so I decided that would have to do. As it turned out, the majority of my responsibilities would include neither and I was quickly taught how to fish and start a fire when I arrived at camp. Questionable ability to actually do the role I was hired for aside, I was happy with nature staff and looked forward to camp. 

Camp is, and always will be, about the campers. And the kids at CTN are a remarkable bunch. I had a kid who called himself Taco; a set of twins who looked out for each other, so convinced the other was completely incompetent forgetting they were both as bad as each other; and a camper so obsessed with British people that he used to actively try and stop us from going on our days off. Looking after the younger kids meant I could convince them of absolutely everything from being kidnapped in Israel to spending a night in jail where we managed to forget 3 people for a week to starting a fire in an army base kitchen. Story time was amongst my favourite moments with my campers. I can never remember loving stories as much as these kids, but watching them hang on your every word, refusing to believe a word of it isn't true is something I will treasure and remember for the rest of my life. I do not consider myself a particularly good storyteller, but that was not an issue. I realise we were there for the campers, but sometimes it felt like the campers were there for us and that we should be paying for the privilege of witnessing them be cute/funny/generally kids about things. 

They teach you in Philosophy that there is no such thing as a stupid question. After a summer of kids asking me if they could jump into the lake or hold their marshmallow in their hands to roast it because they could not find a stick or, after singing G_D Save the Queen, one camper asking me if I was actually British I have begun to have my doubts. It also taught me that kids are basically the same in that they all want to do stupid things. The difference is that the younger ones often ask you before they do, not to seek permission per se but to let you know that this is where their mind is going and what they are likely to do next. It is almost as if they actively know that whatever they are about to do is stupid and they are forewarning you so you can be there when they inevitably do it. There is no easy way to explain the kids at Tel Noar. They were so much fun, so cute and generally wonderful summer companions, even if they did give my patience a run for its money at times.

Camp, at times, made me so happy and proud to be Jewish. Friday night and Saturday afternoon singing, whether the song was related to Judaism/in Hebrew or not was a wonderful experience that I will treasure. Seeing everyone stood up, swaying and singing along gave me goosebumps and I looked forward to it every week. I enjoyed services, though the kids were often restless and only wish we were given more of an education into what the services and prayers meant/why we were saying them. Save for the occasional announcement and English translation in the Siddurs, which offers no reason behind the prayers, no such education seemed forthcoming, which I thought was a shame.

I had a meeting with the assistant director shortly before the end. I expressed to her my deep regret at how camp ended and that when I came to write this inevitable blog post it would not be solely positive. There are things I can ignore, things I did ignore. There are some that made me very unhappy, both because I felt they were not right but also because they tainted my opinion of camp. I expressed these to the assistant director in my meeting, in a letter to the director himself, to the head of the Cohen Camp Foundation and in an online, external survey I had to submit at the request of the camp. Those who know me may not be surprised to hear my letter to the director totalled some 8 pages. I need not go through everything here. A few things upset me the most. First, that I felt the director either refused to listen or did not care about what counsellors had to say, complaints they may have had and opinions they wanted to offer. Not necessarily because he genuinely did not care but rather because they way he dealt with these things made it seem like he did not care, which is just as bad. He openly admitted he could not handle confrontation. This is not a quality desirable in a leader and left me, on numerous occasions, feeling alienated, irrelevant and ignored. At the time of writing, I have had no response to my letter, which I hope is simply because he has not had the time to read it yet. Given one of my complaints was about not even receiving an acknowledgement of receipt of a letter I wrote whilst at camp, I hope to receive one this time. Second, that there were times I felt camp neglected its duty of care towards campers and counsellors. The most obvious, though there are too many examples, was the first time that nuts were allowed onto a nut-free camp (this happened on two separate occasions that I knew of). The reaction I received was one of apathy and, "well, what do you want me to do about it?". I was shocked that something so important could be so ignored. Finally, that the bond to camp returning staff members have is being exploited. For Americans, they cannot just go to another camp - they grew up at Camp Tel Noar - and I felt, at times, that their service to camp was assumed and exploited.

Despite everything, I still miss camp. I don't miss decisions that were made or how it made me feel towards the end. I don't miss the way things were run or the direction I think it was heading. It upsets me how it ended, that my experience was soured but the more distance I have from camp, the more I miss "it" and what is truly important to it. I miss the kids, how wonderfully entertaining they were. I miss my co-counsellors with whom I forged great relationships. I miss other counsellors and members of staff with whom I become friends in such a short space of time. I miss running activities, getting kids to shower, story time, having cake for breakfast on Saturday and instantly regretting it. I miss my choice between carbs and cheese before ultimately always picking salad. I miss colour war, making jokes about missing letters and how Americans have ruined English. I miss a lot of things that make camp what camp is - a special, unique place to spend your summer. So thank you Camp Tel Noar. I am sorry I am unlikely to be back with you next summer, but I had an amazing, valuable and rewarding time that I am grateful for and will treasure.