Summer Camp Philosophy

Everyone makes mistakes.

Most mistakes are of no consequence, something along the lines of “I shouldn’t have chosen the onion bagel for breakfast” or “Yep, that was the wrong street” —but there are some mistakes that stick with you. There are days when it seems human nature is the art of regretting the Big Ones. You think you fixate, and question why your instincts were so disastrously wrong.

For example, I was born with Sickle Cell Anemia. Now, whenever people think of sick children, they think of St. Jude commercials, they think of Facebook post of children with bald heads and surgery scars smiling in the face of hardship. People say things like “he is so strong,” or “what a little warrior,” and as the comment sections are flooded with prayers and support for the families and survivors, I wish I could say that it is that simple, that we are that strong. It’s a lie.

Now, I know what you are thinking. “How is any of that a mistake?” Well, my mistake was that I fell for the lie, too.

I did not choose to be sick, nor did I choose the hospital bills or medication side effects (both physical and mental). I did, however, chose to believe that I was all right. I decided to burn bridges. I chose to stop fighting the tide that comes with everything previously mentioned. It took me a long time to stop believing the lie.

This summer, like many summers before, I found myself at Flying Horse Farms—a sleep-away camp for children with serious medical illnesses, a.k.a. “The Place Where I Stopped Believing the Lie.” As a teenager, this camp was my oasis. This gravel path is where I learned to laugh. Literally. I grew up in a hospital room. While most kids learned effective communication in a classroom drawing pictures, I learned on a pain scale with happy and sad faces on it. I would watch my sisters laughing and making fools of themselves and I wanted to join them, but I didn’t know how to make it happen. I was stuck, holding my breath. Little did I know, laughter is an excellent way to exhale.
Me as a camper in 2014
Somewhere between reminding my campers to drink water and trying to remember how to re-load water guns with dye for tie-dye themed games, I was suddenly reminded of said mistake. One camper in particular (who I cannot name, nor can I give specifics, because I signed an ungodly amount of paperwork) did something that took me right back to my very first day as a camper.

I remember being scared out of my mind and I didn’t understand why everyone was so excited. I remember crying my first night at the campfire. In retrospect, I think that seeing everyone so happy started to crack the illusion of my happiness. I know, this seems like a lot for a middle-schooler to unpack, so for now, let’s call it homesickness.

Let’s be clear, not every child suffering from homesickness is having a major existential crisis. However, I like to believe that my younger self was quite emotionally mature, and since I am writing the story, so will you.

 

It took me a moment to shake myself out of the memory. As I turned to said camper—partly to see if she had enough sunscreen but mostly to make sure that my ability to remember everyone’s name was still functional—suddenly I was looking at someone who was about to make the same mistake that I had.

Suddenly, my summer job, which I took in between my freshman and sophomore year in college, felt more urgent. It wasn’t the medicine that we take at every meal, the undercover doctors, and nurses that watch over us in tie-dye shirts or even the late night conversations that sometimes lead back to the best/worst hospital foods that made this job feel different. After all, those were the things that made up my teenage years. I am familiar with friends discussing the finer differences between long drawn out chronic diseases, like Sickle Cell, versus acute and consuming, yet equally devastating illnesses like cancer, over a card game during free-play. However, the idea that my campers might remember me the way that I remember my camp counselors is humbling, to say the least.

Months after the summer had ended, I found myself talking with my friend Brandon who also happens to be a former camper turned counselor. He seemed to have a similar opinion, if not from a different point of view.

Brandon (on the left) circa 2014

“From my perspective,” he said, “being a counselor wasn’t about getting to recover from the things that I went through, but it was more of my way to prevent others from the same things.”

All of this got me thinking about my recovery. Did my campers help heal my old wounds? Was I too damaged to help anyone? Maybe, neither?

Eventually, Brandon when on to say, “when I see campers I see these kids each with their source of pain, and  I make it my goal for the week to take the pain away from them, and teach them how to deal with the future pain they are given.”

At this point in the conversation, I thought to myself, “with friends like these who needs philosophy?”

After a few weeks of pondering about these questions, I think that I have come to the conclusion that my wounds have long since scared over, but sometimes I forget. Sometimes I need to be reminded that it was all a lie and now I’m here. My campers gave me that. In return I can only hope to teach them that they don’t have to make the same mistakes, they don’t have to live the lie that everything is okay. I want them to know that it is okay to hurt, but I also want to teach them how to laugh. I want this place, the place that I call a second home, to be their oasis.