6 Things I Learned From Sleep Away Camp


1. Being in the “cool” cabin can get you a long way

Sleep away camp is like high school, only it happens sooner and is more visceral in nature. Instead of worrying about where you sit at lunchtime, you must worry about which cabin you have been assigned. In other words, it’s not who you eat with, but who you sleep with that determines whether or not you are cool.

When you’re in the cool cabin, everything is easier. Your meals are delivered to your table faster than the other cabins; your counselors let you stay up later than curfew (or so you’ve heard); in matters of sports teams, bus rides, and trips to the lake you are always paired up with the hot boys cabin; and your counselors (who are “cool” as well) turn a blind eye to dress-code violations—while the other campers are trudging around in baggy tee-shirts and logo-less hats, the kids in the cool cabin get away with spaghetti strap tank tops, hoop earrings, seductively low jean shorts, and flip-flops.

The world is a cold, harsh place; you learn at this young age, but realize that there is a way to soften the blow. Maybe you weren’t assigned to the cool cabin (as a rule there is only one cool cabin per gender) but you can still be assigned to a neutral cabin. If there’s one thing I learned from sleep away camp, it’s that it’s better to be in the mediocre, plain Jane, “vanilla” cabin than it is to be in the cabin that doesn’t exist. Remember that summer when five girls were accidentally left at the lake? That’s because they were in Cabin 7…the invisible cabin.

2. Just because we’re singing about Jesus doesn’t mean we’re thinking about him

For five years I attended a YMCA-sponsored sleep away camp. For five years I sang songs about Jesus and angels and “the Lord” around a campfire situated at the base of a ten-foot wooden cross. For five years, I, like every other camper and counselor in that 95% Jewish camp, wondered why on Earth I was singing these songs and if my parents would be upset if they found out. But, for five years I followed the herd and belted those lyrics— if only because it meant I’d get a s’more at the end of the jam session.

3. If it came from the cafeteria, be wary

One of my favorite summers at sleep away camp was the year that half the camp got sick from food poisoning. Campers were literally dropping like flies—waking up at night vomiting off the sides of their bunk beds, blowing chunks while taking a shower, or just plain exorcising up their lunch in the middle of a meal. Those were fun times. The infirmary was literally so packed with sickies that cots had to be set outside the building and hordes of parents drove up early to take their kids home.

Once the camp directors figured out what the problem was—disease-ridden cafeteria food, duh—they resolved the problem by feeding us pre-packaged foods for the rest of the summer.

Fortunately, I was one of the few who didn’t get sick. Always a finicky eater, I stuck to boxed Cheerios and simple peanut butter sandwiches even before the food poisoning epidemic hit. No salad bar or mystery meatloaf for me, thank you.

4. Respecting authority is for losers

A camp cabin is like an insular family unit. You’ve got the parents (the counselors), the elder siblings (the counselor in training) and the kids (the campers). Like most families, there are the good children and the bad children. The good children are the boring kids: the kids who go to bed when the lights are turned off, hike to the top of the hill even if they’re tired, take showers when told, and wear one piece bathing suits. The bad kids are the badasses: the kids who plan late night raids on rival cabins, sneak a cup of coffee under the table at breakfast, tell scary stories at night, and make their counselors’ jobs a living hell.

The great thing about acting out at sleep away camp is that the dynamics of the real world do not apply. Yes, your counselors may hate you and curse the ground you walk on, but everyone else—the other campers and even some of the other counselors— will find you endlessly entertaining and hilarious, and they’ll always be there to pat your back or applaud you after you pull off your latest stunt. Everyone loves a rabble-rouser now and again.

5. No mail is good mail

Even before the days of anthrax, I had learned to dread receiving mail. Why? Because at my camp, you had to pay a toll—a laborious, mortifying toll— before receiving any care packages. Mom, Dad, and Grandma may have thought they were doing good by sending you that tin of homemade oatmeal cookies and Archie comics, but they were wrong. No cookies or comics are worth the embarrassment of having to dance the squirrel dance in front of your fellow campmates singing, “Grey squirrel. Grey squirrel. Shake your bushy tail.” Don’t get me started on the dance moves.

6. Dances suck

Dances suck—it’s really not that difficult to explain. At first they might seem exciting. A slutty new dress? An opportunity to show off your latest butterfly dance move or booty bounce to your favorite TLC song? A possible slow dance with that hottie, Sean, from Cabin 13?

But as the days whittle down and the date approaches, the dance starts to loose its luster. You may have great dance moves, but are you really going to be able to muster up the courage to show them off in public? And what if the DJ sucks and plays lame music that your parents would listen to, like Kool and The Gang and Madonna? And now, to top it all off, that freakishly tall, bucktoothed kid named Henry from Cabin 11 has asked you to the dance and you didn’t know what to say so you said yes, but of course you don’t want to go with him, so how do you avoid him and still make it obvious to Sean that you are single, sexy, and willing to be his dance partner or sex slave — you name it — without hurting the feelings of Henry?

So, the day of the dance arrives and as luck would have it, it is cancelled. The whole camp is sick with food poisoning, a thunder and lightning storm has hit, the DJ cancelled—blah, blah. All lame excuses, but you don’t really care. You knew the dance would suck anyways.

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image – B. Riordan