As the high school sophomore bobbed in the water, supportive counselors shouted encouragement at her first water-skiing attempt. "Let the boat pull you up! Keep your arms straight! Get the tips out of the water!"
Giving a nod that she was ready, she saw the boat pick up speed. Like the majority of beginning skiers, she rose out of the water a few inches and then crashed face first. As the boat circled around to help her try again, she apologized profusely to the counselors. "I'm so sorry I didn't get up. I wasted your time. I'm sorry you had to come back and get me."
“It's no big deal,” they told her. “Just try again. You'll get up in a few tries. Hardly anyone gets up on the first try.” On the second attempt, she coordinated her arms, legs, skis, rope and the nod of her head. Almost instantly, she popped out of the water and successfully skied around the lake. At the end of her run, counselors cheered as she climbed into the boat, and they dubbed her the “Pop-Up Queen.” Instead of basking in the excitement, she burst into tears.
It's been over 35 years, and I still lay claim to my "Pop-Up Queen" title. I also remember why I cried that sunny day on the lake. The week at camp opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed. Normal everyday experiences were new to me. At the first camp meal, I marveled that eight people sat around a table and talked while eating. People said “please” and “thank you” while passing milk. Most of all, I noticed the laughter. People actually laughed while eating a meal!
In my house, the family seldom ate at the same time, let alone with laughter. Frequently, plates were thrown across the room as people yelled. If my brothers and I happened to laugh about something, the response from my mother was, “Why are you laughing? Your life is so miserable you don't have any reason to laugh.” At camp I had difficulty understanding that it was totally appropriate to take a bite of food, make a comment, laugh at someone's response, and then continue eating.
Brave New Girl
I marveled at the friendships that developed at camp. At home I was told, “You don't need friends. Friends are only trouble. Besides, no one would want to be your friend.” Naturally, I seldom visited friends at their houses and never had anyone over to mine. I didn't know about other lifestyles, with people showing mutual respect and sharing an occasional laugh. Yet at camp I was thrown into situations where people asked me to join them for a hike, or sit by them at campfire. It was a nice experience but also felt awkward.
The biggest shock was counselors saying positive things about me. "Silvana, that's a great bowl you made in ceramics!" (It was supposed to be a flower pot.) "You did a wonderful job in the skit last night." Over and over I wondered if they were paid to specifically say something nice about me. That's why I cried at the water ski incident. It confused me why counselors didn't tell me I was stupid and uncoordinated because I didn't get up on skis the first time. Just the week before camp, my mother said, "How much did you have to pay this guy to take you out? You're so ugly no boy would take you out without getting paid."
If you've grown up in that type of environment, it’s difficult to grasp the warm, encouraging atmosphere at camp. At times I shut down emotionally, and simply watched what was happening around me. The smiles, the hugs and, yes, the laughter, showed me a new way of living. Fortunately, several camp staff kept in touch with me the next few years until I graduated from high school and could leave home. When things became unbearable, I knew those counselors would be available for help. Hearing someone tell me I was a worthwhile person gave me the strength to continue living for a few more weeks.
Since that turning point as a 16-year-old camper, I've continued my dedication to camping by being a counselor, camp director and now a speaker to the camping industry. I know first-hand the difference a camping experience makes in the life of a child.
Silvana Clark has over 20 years experience helping thousands of children create arts and crafts projects. She presents keynotes and workshops on a variety of recreation-related subjects. She can be reached at (615) 662-7432 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org