SPidge Tales

Monday, June 18, 2007

Camp Guggenheim: A Critical Evaluation

Have you ever gone to a themed ride at an amusement park? You know, one of the ones where the staff member pretends to really be a safari guide or space explorer or whatever the ride experience is. He or (or she) will introduce himself with WAYYYYY too much enthusiasm, asking the group, “Is everybody excited to be here!?” Once everyone yells back “yes!”, the tour guide still isn’t satisfied. He has to yell, “I can’t hear you! Say it one more time,” or something of that variation. I hate That Guy. That Guy can be seen in many roles, such as camp counselor, campus minister, RA, Freshmen Orientation leader, and tour guide. I always feel like saying, “dude, you heard us fine the first time. Shut your trap and get on with the show.”

An experience in late August 2005 caused me think, “wait, I am That Guy.” I had just begun my first year teaching religion and history at St. Gregory’s School for Boys. We began the school year by taking the boys on an overnight trip to Camp Chingakook in Lake George, NY. My fellow teachers and I were pretty mellow guys, but upon arrival, the camp counselors met our students with whistles and horns, quickly screaming and shouting with way too much enthusiasm and excitement. They divided the boys up into groups, ran icebreakers (which were quite unnecessary in context; this was not a group of random kids coming to camp who did not know one another. This was a group of boys who had been going to school with one another for years), and, to make matters rather awkward, forced the boys to hold hands in group activities. At night in the cabins, I overheard plenty of talk from the boys about the counselors. Terms such as “annoying,” “dorks,” and “tools” came spouting from these middle school mouths.

I have never been an RA; I have friends who were RA’s. They were very good at it and really enjoyed it. But I would never recommend being an RA to any incoming college student. There are so many other enjoyable work study jobs; why take a job where you are put in a position of being a behavior monitor (that’s what it is) of your peers? Jobs like RA take a certain type of personality. But this same personality type gravitates to camp counseling and campus ministry, two jobs I have done. And while I certainly did enjoy my time at Camp Guggenheim, a Catholic overnight summer camp for youths 12-15 (and one week 16-18), there are certain things, looking back, that I would have changed about the camp.

I was a little more optimistic (and a little more naïve) as a 20 year old embarking on his first summer on staff. I thought I was going to turn the campers into disciples for Christ. I thought I was going to meet a nice female staff member and fall in love (that never happened). I though Guggenheim would be Disney World and Candy Land rolled into one.

It was a great place, I had a lot of fun, and I made some good friends. One of my best friends is a guy I worked with there who just got ordained. But three years distance from the place gives an opportunity for detached perspective. In hindsight, Guggenheim was a good summer camp. Nothing special. Kids had a good time there; I’m sure kids at the thousands of other summer camps around the country had just as good a time. Guggenheim is unique only in the sense that every snowflake is unique. It’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread (for the record, the greatest thing since sliced bread is cheese whiz).

Did the kids cry from joy at the end of each camp week because of the new friendships they made? Did they cry from sadness at having to leave these newfound friends? Yes, but there is also what I consider the “onion” factor that needs to be weighed. If you see a picture of someone crying, her wet eyes may be tears of sadness. Or they may be tears of happiness. She could have tripped and fell and they could be tears of physical pain. Or, maybe she is cutting an onion and they are the natural tears from an onion’s scent.

Again, maybe the tears at the end of each camp week are natural; or maybe it has a little to do with the emotional onion we camp counselors carved by showing video clips of the week with musical background such as Phil Collin’s "True Colors" and Dashboard Confessional’s "So Long Sweet Summer". I call it cued emotional moments.We cued emotion every Wednesday night for the Penance Service. After three days of fun and games, plus uplifting Mass each afternoon, we tell the kids it’s time to be quiet, act sad, and pull out all those sinful moments to confess. Two hours later, its time to bottle those emotions back up and have fun again at the variety show.During prayer gatherings, the play button on the CD player was a cue to hold hands. I was rather indifferent to the hand holding, except when it was really hot out, the song was really long, and my hands got sweaty. What I really found amusing was the overemphasis on hugging during the sign of peace. Now, I have nothing against hugging, per se. I hug people I am close to during the sign of peace. Some people kiss during the sign of peace (which is also fine; the sign of peace is known as the kiss of peace). I personally feel more comfortable giving a handshake, especially to a bunch of kids I just met that week. And, it was not enough to emphasize hugging during the sign of peace. It had to be drawn out for like five minutes so everyone could hug everyone. The funny part was watching the boys go around making sure to hug all the pretty girls.Again (again, again, again), my goal is not to insinuate that Guggenheim is a bad place. It is a good camp. The kids have fun. The counselors make friends with each other. But there is a danger that places like Guggenheim (and events such as retreats: my personal example is the St. Michael’s retreat LEAP. I would explain more about it, but I would offend a lot of people because of that ridiculous pledge of secrecy about the events of the weekend when nothing really needs to be kept secret about what goes on, save personal tidbits that people share) can build up the group equivalent to the Joseph Stalin or JFK cult of personality. At the end of each camp week, we counselors would profess our love for the campers and tell them to go out into the world as disciples. Maybe this is an exaggeration, but maybe it would have been best if we just said “goodbye.” If we just said, “we’re glad you had a good week, come back next year and make more friends.” I don’t know. I just don't like the idea of "timing" emotions, so to speak. Yes, people need times to be happy, and times to be sad. But you can't put a time schedule on it. You can't tell people that Wednesday night between dinner and the variety show is their time to feel bad about their sins. You can't tell kids that a week at camp makes them ready to be disciples. It has to come naturally. The goals of a summer camp (and I speak as a believing Catholic) should be to give kids a good God experience and a good time. I'm not sure a summer camp with a bunch of untrained college students as camp counselors is the place to open children's emotions. But, feel free to criticize me. I could be wrong.

This week, I embark on a new camp quest. I am working at a Catholic camp in Vermont this summer. I am glad I waited three years to work at a camp again. If I had gone to a new camp in 2005, the summer right after my last one at Guggenheim, I probably would have wanted to make the new camp into a kind of Guggenheim. I would have been that annoying guy who said, “This is the way we did it at my old camp.” Now, I am excited to experience this new camp the way it is. I have no desire to make it into a “Guggenheim 2.” I am content to enjoy this camp for what it is, and to take me experience as a teacher to be a mellower camp counselor. I’m sure I will bring out the craziness for things like “Tarzan,” but I know through teaching that kids like it better when I speak to them calmly and friendly, rather than throw on all the extra fake enthusiasm.


Anonymous bernie said...

hey sean-been catching up on the blog. great articles-esp the dostoyevsky, hitchens, estrogen, and of course this one on camp!

9:25 PM  

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