A Brain Is A Wonderful Thing To Rot

How did the phrase ‘Summer Learning Loss’ get a strangle hold on the collective consciousness? What will befall our children beyond the classroom? Will my campers finish their summer reading? Will the polished fine edges of their academic wits dull from long exposure to sun, wind, rain, mud, bugs, swimming, hiking, paddling and just generally goofing off?

One can only hope.

American media frets seasonally over education shortfalls. With spring come dire headlines on our kids’ recess brain drain, or op-ed essays on solutions like the specter of year-round schooling. In reply, I offer vignettes from our traditional canoe trip camp where, since early in the past century, generations of highly successful adults spent their childhood summers practicing the art of Brain Rot.

My 7- or 17-year-old campers could meet any 47- or 97-year-old alumni and they could all instantly connect over Brain Rot. But this is not a program at my camp. It just happens at my camp, and I hope at every camp worth its salt.

What is this ghastly condition? Brain Rot shows up in otherwise bright students, paroled under summer skies. They speak in strange, made-up languages, affect phony accents imagined from cultures around the world, wear clothes inside out, flourish applause over the slightest achievement in barely inaudible ‘golf clap’, perform spontaneous skits in front of tourists along the trail, and worship any cuisine featuring the merest hint of either bacon or cheddar. But preferably both.

The Brain Rotted may spend half a day sitting on a log, flicking sticks, tossing pebbles. Might be soaked through, exhausted, completely happy, begging for more bugs when the bugs are at their worst. For days on end, answering any foolish question with the stock reply, “4:30.” Spinning out elaborate satirical group narratives of cooking or home-improvement TV shows when setting up a trip campsite or heating up beans and coffee.

Brain Rot patients can present with even more severe symptoms, thank goodness. They may bellow out songs and laugh hysterically, exposed in a driving rain, or toiling through hours of upwind canoe paddling. But preferably both.

When it’s all over, they may hug each other and their counselors, crying bitter tears, when the time has finally come to split up for home and ‘the books.’

All this whacky behavior is a sign only of good health and a great prognosis.

This wonderful phenomenon, Brain Rot, is just kids together in a simplified analog outdoor world, with skilled young adults in charge. They are (mostly) happily coping with new settings, challenges, trials and tribulations presented by this amazing tonic called summer camp, which steps in to replace nine months of often pressure-packed, wearying, anxious school- and home-work routines, with their rigors, fears and relentless adult expectations. Brain Rotted campers of any age are literally resting, resetting, recharging their minds and spirits, and doing it socially. They’re making more decisions between themselves about what their minds are up to day to day. They’re bolstering each other’s well-being toward the next school year.

If we’re worrying over summer learning loss, then let’s be working on nurturing our campers’ readiness and endurance, mental stoicism and mature perspective, sense of fun, sense of self. The essential chemistry, so they can learn anything at all in school, so they can bring to the challenge what’s needed: their interest and inquiry, self-confidence, drive, optimism and humor, even appetite for rigor.

 An eager learner? Just a Brain Rotted camper … who also got his summer reading done.

Mike Sladden is the director and co-owner of Camp Pathfinder, a century-old boys’ canoe trip camp in world-famous Algonquin Park, Ontario. A third generation Pathfinder camper and guide since 1969, he now lives for six months each year at camp’s rustic island base in the Algonquin interior, where he leads Pathfinder’s wilderness tripping, scholastic outdoor education, and in-camp programs. “Sladds” and his wife Leslie have raised two sons at camp and in their hometown of Rochester, N.Y.