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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Summer is Bullying Season at Camp

The New York Times covered the latest trend for elite summer camps: anti-bullying training. The coverage and the trend are well overdue. It seems that folks are afraid that there will be a camp version of the Columbine Massacre.

I couldn't remember why I hated summer camp until this article uncovered some repressed memories. The last camp I attended was 25 years ago. Six years ago I paid a visit as a 31 year old with my lovely girlfriend, my dogs, in a rented car, which was nice because I had a life of my own, and could leave that place when I wanted to.

After looking at the idyllic setting, which included two lakes, two mountains, and for our surprise and pleasure a leaping stag, strutting peacocks, and a petting zoo. This woman who never went to sleepaway camp as a girl, who had to eat quick or her many siblings would eat all the food first, could not understand why I was not grateful and happy to go to Camp Timberlake. At the time I was hardpressed to give her a sensical response.

After some reflection I figured that maybe it was my fault, that I didn't fit in because of my family's problems which made me feel so unique, and not in a good way. My parents were seemingly on the verge of divorce. My mother spoke to me about her and I moving to Alaska, which is far from Long Island. She was making big plans, or so it seemed to a twelve year old. One of my close relatives was heavily into barbituates and drinking, and the combination with emotional instability and driving was a scary combination that shook me. He totaled the family car in our garage after driving across several lawns; he was crying with a knife over a heartbreak; the cops were beating him up in his room after my parents let them in to 'take care of him;' he was carried off in a straight jacket on a stretcher. I wasn't allowed to talk of these things, and I am probably breaking some family code of silence now. At the time my Dad coped with all this by throwing himself into his business and on business trips that lasted weeks at a time.

In addition, I was scrawny, artistic, bookish, and somewhat effete. As a result, according to the linked article, I had awful problems with bullying for four awful summers at three camps from 1976-1979, causing me to dread the end of school culminating with the inevitable breakout of 'colorwar' in which bunks were split in mutual 'warfare,' as if things weren't bad enough.

At all the camps, 'counselors' routinely ignored bullying, and at Timberlake, the counselor himself physically abused us in the bunks, lifting us off the beds by our nipples. We had to submit to this as proof of our toughness. Fortunately, his mom was the camp's nurse, in case we got really hurt.

All these problem camps (Camp Olympus, Timberlake, and Cejwin) advertised in the camp section of the New York Times Magazine. They were prestigious, and three of them had jewish orientations, one with services and prayers several times daily. So much for the stereotype of Jews being wimps and mamma's boys!

Yet this religious camp allowed a fellow nine year old camper in my bunk to sexually abuse fellow bunkmates by forcing youngsters to perform fellatio on him until he peed in their mouths. I refused and was terrorized for it. I went to school with this kid, so he bullied me from fourth through sixth grade. It was difficult to get the camp or my grade school to help me cope with him. (At our ten year high school reunion we buried the hatchet; he reportedly works with troubled youths on carpentry projects.)

I had repressed these memories until I read the NYT article today. So many people, including my mother, who was a gregarious, beautiful and precocious youth in her day, have great camp memories, so I felt that something was wrong with me for absolutely hating the competitive, pro-conformity, jockish nature of camp. My girlfriend in 1998 thought I was a candy ass for not loving such a beautiful place. I would have if I could have had more chances to wander the woods, make some art, read, do more plays, and mix with the kids who shared my interests.

When I was a teenager, I asked my mother why she kept sending me to Jewish sports camps even though I obviously hated them. My friends who went to arts camps seemed happy. She explained that she was afraid that I'd be raped by gay camp counselors.

I am glad that parents and Camp Directors are paying more attention to bullying in camp. Still, I would be very nervous sending my children to camp, and I resolve to pay more attention if my children were to send me tear stained letters or no letters
at all, two tactics I used futilely to get out of camp early.

Bringing these issues out in the open is a good first step. People say that mass violence events like Columbine are senseless. When they happen, they are. They happen out of rage and depression and desperation. They are caused by a complete lack of perspective, but they don't happen in a vacuum. These events are sown and grown. Five years after the Columbine Massacre we can start to make some sense of the senseless, and, perhaps some good can come of it if children can be spared the pain of bullying, and if adults try to listen to children, guiding them and caring.


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