Amanda Northrop/Vox

Behind the cabins and campfires, it’s an elitist and conservative institution.

This is true: In my fourth and final year at summer camp, I was mock-kidnapped after lights out, driven to the edge of a forest, and told to kneel. The camp director emerged from the trees gripping a sword. He said some incantatory nonsense and knighted me, marking my induction into the camp’s most exclusive club: the Camper’s Council.

My camp ran seven weeks, June to August, in Maine. Campers ages 6 to 16 came from “outstanding families” around the world, as the website proudly proclaimed (remarkable how much of the world resided in the tri-state area). During the day, we’d fire .22s at the camp’s junior rifle range, and after dark, we’d play campfire games and sing the goodnight song.

On the whole, the place made me miserable. I hated bringing my towel to the communal showers and worrying that someone might see me naked. I hated playing sports badly and then having to pretend I cared about getting better. I hated Dance Fridays, a ritual humiliation so cutting it felt engineered by social scientists to make me upset.

I can’t deny that camp had its moments. Getting picked for Camper’s Council was one of them. When you’re 12, you feel deserving of any honor bestowed on you: I remember bathing in pride when the blade lightly touched my shoulders. I later found out it had been forged from Toledo steel. Not knowing what that meant only impressed me more.

The council, a kind of summertime student government, convened a few times every year. We were supposed to lobby management on behalf of the rest of the campers — when we wanted something, like more fluff for our fluffernutters, we made a motion. When we had complaints about the relative scarcity of foursquare courts, it became a useful back channel.

None of us were elected. Instead, existing members nominated candidates in closed sessions, like a secret society. Only one criterion mattered: Every candidate had to exhibit “high character.” Needless to say, our focus group of 10- to 15-year-olds had no idea how to identify this. Cronyism reigned, and, as with most private clubs, the council functioned largely as a status symbol, and occasionally as a lever to enact petty agendas. The summer I served, we handled one issue involving a counselor some of us didn’t like. I can’t remember the reasoning; it’s possible he was too rude. By the end of the session, I think we had managed to get him fired.

Camper’s Council hardly made sense, at least from a camper’s perspective. We knew we were foolish, too young to legislate. But from an adult’s point of view — from the view of the parents who paid for the instillation of a certain brand of character, and the staff who promised to service it — the council was a self-evident success.

Us kids had it backward. Character wasn’t what earned you a seat but what the council would ultimately impart: the soft skills needed to advocate for something you wanted; the congeniality to cultivate allies in its pursuit; the self-assurance that attends even the hollowest power. The council’s existence signaled the same thing that the camp’s mandatory uniforms and Toledo steel swords did: This was a playground for the elite.

The camp was largely attended by the same group of people I went to private school with, the same I competed against for Easter eggs at the country club brunch, the same I would later debate at Phillips Exeter Academy, where my dad went, and his dad, and his dad before him. Plus or minus a small French contingent and a few sons of Venezuelan oil barons, these were my people, luckily and shamefully. Their circumstances were uncommon.

But take away the trappings of wealth and you would find the same cancerous organ that powers all summer camps. I submit that summer camp as an institution fully sucks. Presented as some kind of antediluvian free state for kids, in which play is loosely organized but otherwise unfettered, its conventions are sneakily conservative.

The very idea of camp grew out of a reactionary movement, as University of British Columbia historian Leslie Paris noted in her book Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp. Near the end of the 19th century, educators, church leaders, and child welfare activists started embracing rustic sleepaway camps as a necessary corrective to the “feminizing” influence of urban life. The earliest camps sprouted in New England and catered to middle- and upper-middle-class Protestants. Their founders shared a lofty goal: to turn boys into model citizens.

Elitism wasn’t an unfortunate corollary to this project but its animating ethic. Ernest Balch, who founded Camp Chocorua on Squam Lake in New Hampshire — one of the first and most influential summer camps — wrote about raising boys with the character “to hold this Republic safe against the forces of evil and keep the soft hearted and soft headed safe in their homes.”

He drew from his studies at Exeter and Dartmouth to devise a holistic curriculum that would train an army of gentleman clones. It tested far more than physical vigor. “In the woods,” Paris wrote, “Chocorua campers learned not only about nature but also about capitalism, market values, buying on credit, hiring themselves out, and paying for the labor of others — skills with applications in the environments from which they came and to which they would soon return.”

Obviously, camp didn’t stay the province of the wealthy. It was too powerful a concept, and the modern school system practically necessitated it. American kids were no longer working thanks to child labor laws, but compulsory education still gave them three months of freedom per year that parents had to figure out how to occupy. Summer vacations became democratized, and summer camps soon attracted new constituencies.

But camp’s philosophical framework remained fixed. Its rationale, in the eyes of both parents and proponents, was broadly utilitarian: Camp functioned as a vehicle for moral instruction as much as recreation, because kids’ characters needed building.

A hundred and forty years later, a warped copy of that blueprint lingers, tainting the modern camp experience. Strict schedules of activity times, meals, lights out, and morning assembly workify the fun. A hierarchy of privileges, like later bedtimes and more off-campus socializing, accrues to older kids to encourage repeat customers. Sexuality, of course, is stridently policed, even while campers are made to believe that something is always happening behind the boathouse. Throughout, the grown-ups talk about character, how campers are becoming the people they would eventually be. How the victories and defeats and teamwork and even tears would strengthen them in some ineffable but consequential way.

Character suggests different qualities to different groups. My own camp minted members in good standing, as the bankers’ and lawyers’ kids who went invariably became. I know because I’m one of them, despite my best efforts. I work in advertising, live in a global city, get politely drunk at cocktail parties. I married a lawyer. I have achieved a facility for racquet sports. I can pronounce the names of most foods. I never button a suit’s bottom button.

That’s what my camp wanted for me, and wherever they ended up, I know my fellow campers share a version of it. Like so many institutions of the upper class, my camp was just another handshake, another network, another vetting process. Whether anyone has dropped the name in an interview, I can’t say, but I have full confidence that if I messaged a former camper I didn’t know and titled it “Hey, remember me from camp?” they would open that message, read it, and possibly reply.

Ultimately, summer camps exist to validate outmoded social structures among the most vulnerable age bracket. It’s not surprising that athletic preteen extroverts with good looks and excess friends shine in a camp setting — nor is it condemnable. But most of the things that make camp camp form a divisive feedback loop, funneling emotional resources to the kids who already enjoy their fill. It can be a hard chain to break. Picking captains for color wars, treating each cabin like a microsociety, commoditizing care packages — these traditions all conspire to allocate attention to the campers who get plenty of it the rest of the year, and alienate the ones who might not fit in.

In a way, tradition is where the most insidious attitudes flower. Parents may find some proto-camp programming unobjectionable, or even positive. A low dose of nationalism, like pledging the flag or saluting stuff or really losing your shit on July Fourth, isn’t necessarily toxic. But wade deeper into camp country and you can’t mistake the enduring gender norms, the hazing rituals, the elitism that colors the whole enterprise to this day. Why did the girls’ cabins at my camp have bathrooms and electricity while the boys’ didn’t? Why were endless, often painful, occasionally cruel pranks a central feature?

None of it gets interrogated, because camps profit from tradition: The 10-year-old camper at the bottom of the totem pole keeps coming back so he can finally enjoy his time at the top. The wealthy banker believes he must have done everything right, and wants his kids to follow in his footsteps.

It’s raw indoctrination, but adolescents don’t have the capacity to question dogma. They’re rewarded for conforming to the camp’s status quo, so they conform to the best of their ability, and however their time goes, they think they’ve learned a lesson about life. That’s the dark irony of character: It is presumed built either way. Had a horrible time? Built character. Made lifelong friends? Built character. Took your first Juul hit while contemplating the enormity of your despair? Built character. This allows camps to package any experience as a success, insofar as every camper has an experience.

There is, of course, another institution kids pass through that’s resistant to change, frequently humiliating, economically stratified, and the cause of countless minor traumas: school. But school is so critical to children’s development that we regulate it stringently — we review and revise its curricula; we consider how it impacts a life before, during, and after attendance. Camps, on the other hand, are largely lawless. No national regulations exist. There is no standard to be applied. Whether a camp chooses to evolve its programs and provide more progressive spaces for kids is entirely within its discretion.

To be fair, some camps are doing just that. A number of sleepaway camps geared toward LGBTQ youth have appeared in recent years, offering gender-inclusive cabins and sports. Specialist camps and minority-focused programs help foster a sense of community for kids who desperately need it. But that’s not camp’s legacy — if it were, the existence of those programs wouldn’t be noteworthy.

Camp’s legacy, for me, is the elation of the moment I was knighted, my camp director smiling down at me, the promise that I had been granted entry into a new, more important group of people. It made everything I hated about camp briefly tolerable.

Years later, I ran into a fellow Camper’s Council member at Harvard Law School, where I was visiting a friend for the weekend. He and I got drunk and reminisced. It turns out he had caught the camp bug and returned for many years, eventually getting hired in college and rising to the head of staff or some equivalent. He had overseen Camper’s Council as part of his duties.

I used to think those people were closet freaks, but he seemed like a legitimately upstanding dude, the same way I remembered him. And I could see how some people genuinely love camp and cherish their memories from it, the way I cherished memories of Zelda: A Link to the Past or my black Lab, Norm. At the same time, drinking Buds in an HLS dorm room with a future master of the universe just solidified my suspicions about why camp exists and how it operates.

At some point, I asked him about the sword. He confessed that the camp director had bought it at Disney World. When you’re a kid, you’re just eager to believe.

Author: Mac Schwerin

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