Those who regularly read my blog would be aware that I use podcasts to keep my brain alive while I’m pushing the pram. One of my favourites is This American Life, and the other day I was listening to an episode on the great American tradition of summer camp.*
As is so often the case with This American Life I wasn’t sure, initially, whether I was going to find this episode interesting (I struggle with anything that features interviews with earnest teenagers), but within a few minutes I was hooked, as is also often the case. And the hook was identification.
You see, I went to holiday camps at high school, and I totally identified with the feeling, articulated by so many of the campers in this podcast, that holiday camp reality was somehow a better, more heightened reality than everyday life.
There was a kind of paradox to the experience of camp. On camp, because of – rather than in spite of – the artificiality of the context and it’s disconnection from every day reality, you could be more authentically yourself, or at very least try out versions of yourself that you would never dare to at home or school.
The other thing that came through in this podcast was the way in which the camp experience could give you a more intense sense of community than anywhere else. There were points at which this verged on the kind of fusing of your identity with a group, that teenagers crave (as an escape from the prison of constant and overwhelming self-consciousness).
The last part of the podcast touched on just such an experience. It recorded the last two days of a girl’s summer camp. These days were called ‘colour days’ and began before dawn on the first day with a ceremony in which the ghost of the blue team (a camp counsellor with blue face paint), and the ghost of the white team (a camp counsellor with white face paint) emerged from the forest to select the girls who were to be the team captains. Then the captains gathered their teams together, gave them an intense peptalk, and began the difficult task of assigning ‘events’ to the various members of their team. Who’s the fastest runner, the best swimmer, the fastest pie eater, the best at making a bed?
Anyway, the two days culminated in a relay that involved every member of each team, doing a huge array of different activities, the last of which involved the two captains of each team starting a fire with a flint and tiny bits of bark (that they had been collecting all camp) with the goal of building a big enough fire to burn through a piece of rope tied between trees above the flames. As it turned out, both teams were neck and neck at the end, and as the blue team’s fire suddenly roared to life, you could hear ear-piercing screams of jubilation and despair from the respective teams that were both incredibly comic and incredibly moving at the same time. As the narrator described the near hysterical sobbing of one of the younger girls (on the winning team) after it was all over, totally overcome as she was by the intense emotions of the event, I found tears rolling down my own face. I was, it must be said, walking home from a three year old’s birthday party, so there was a lot of alcohol and sugar in my system, but even so the emotion was real. I felt a kind of protective tenderness for this girl, and at the same time an aching nostalgia for the elation and despair that characterised my own hysterical girlhood.
I would never go back to my teenager years, but there is a part of me that grieves the fact that I no longer live with that hormone-heightened intensity. It makes me wonder how I will experience my own girls’ teenage years. I wonder if, alongside fearing for their physical, emotional and sexual safety, and fighting against the desire to protect them from the mistakes that they will – and indeed must – make, there will also be the chance to revisit – even if only vicariously – that experience of adolescent hyperreality.
One can only hope.
*In case you are interested, the podcast I listened to was actually a repeat of an episode from 1998, which you can find here.