August 18, 2013

What is the true meaning of summer camp?

Just before 7 this morning I was on a swim dock to test a small group of style swimmers for their Arowhon A. How important is the Arowhon A at camp? Here’s one way to know: I have my Arowhon A framed on my office wall – in Toronto. My daughter has hers on her cabin wall. It was framed for her by her grandfather, my father (and camp director) Eugene Kates. Last year one of the girls in my cabin – yes, we think  of our cabin-mates as that for life – died. Another cabin-mate went to her apartment and from it, brought me…. her framed Arowhon A.  Still pride of place almost 50 years later because it’s so hard to get and it matters so much here at camp. Your swimming strokes and dives have to be perfect to get the Arowhon A.

But back to this morning. All over camp there were last-minute tests being completed. I saw and heard them as I walked to the dock. Some people passed. That’s the simple part. They will be carried in to the dining hall at breakfast on their staff’s shoulders. They’ll be standing on the blue and gold podium (mid level for 2nd class, tall for 1st class) and their instructors will make speeches about how hard they’ve worked and how great they are at their activity.

But what of the kids who failed? That’s the more complex part – and maybe the bigger win, in terms of what we call at camp “life-long learnables.” For the kids who fail their test – and some do – their counsellors and Section Heads are there (yes, they attend all their campers’ tests) to comfort them, to remind them of their essential worth, and that their hard work matters despite the pass or fail – because that’s who they are. The kids who fail learn perhaps a more valuable lesson than the kids who pass – that’s it’s ok to fail, that you can come back from failure, that you can pick yourself up and keep on keeping on. If I had to pick one of those two life lessons for my own kids, I’d pick that one – because it’s the one that comes in handy more often in life.

You might ask: Why allow failure at camp? Why not pass everyone? Why not create a system where nobody fails? Because one, that would cheapen and tarnish the meaning of success. Getting the award would then have no heft. But more important, it would deprive the kids who fail of a lesson that will stand them in good stead for decades.

I think maybe part of where I find the courage to stand up every day in the Main Lodge and get 500 people to be quiet and listen to my announcements, where I find the optimism and the  grit to stay the course with struggling campers and staff – essentially the preparation I received for my job running this camp – came from failing a few high award tests at camp when I was a camper – and getting great support from my counsellors to put one foot in front of the other and never give up.

Arowhon A test

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