When I was young, I would wait anxiously for the same time of year to roll around. I wanted June to roll around so that I could finally go to summer camp.
If you were a kid who went to summer camp, you know how magical it was. Camp was a Utopia. The vibrancy of life was always on full display.
Looking back on my time at camp as an adult, I’m filled with a sense of nostalgia, and wonder at the lessons that I was able to experience in such a short amount of time.
In all honestly, camp is where I grew up.
My first summer was when I was 8 . I started in the youngest cabin, and by the time I’d done my final summer there at age 16, I I had come a long way from being the wide eyed little boy who couldn’t even fall asleep his first night.
I remember it like yesterday. My mom dropped me, my brother and sister off at the camp and reminded us that we need to be good, and she would see us in two weeks. As first generation Africans, camp was not something that was in our culture, and so coming to camp felt like a right of passage into being an American kid.
The first person I met was a tall and jolly man named Aaron. He looked like he was an NBA player (many years later, his cousin would go on to play basketball overseas).
The camp was a village. There were people from all over the world: Sydney and Moscow, London and the Ukraine. One year, a counselor convinced a group of wide eyed kids that he was a distant prince, in line for the British throne. Another summer, one Irish counselor convinced every camper that inside the staff lodge, there was a McDonalds which only they were allowed to use.
The whole summer went on like this. There were small moments where I was continually filled with wonder and awe.
I had never actually seen a running river before. I felt much like my African parents when they came to America and realized that snow was a real thing. Mother earth’s ability to impress knew no limits.
I stared in amazement as it roared through the woods like it had somewhere extremely important to go. Where does it start and where does it end? I still don’t completely know the answer to this.
I learned to shoot a bow and arrow, and climbed on trees high in the woods, then rode down a wire cable.
I learned to swim, and when I did, I felt like a super human. Passing the swim test and being granted access to the deep end made me feel like I was a member of an elite club, because I was.
After a swim session, I would go with my friends to the studio where an instructor showed us how to work complex cameras with which we shot home videos.
What amazed me the most, however, were the profound connections between people that sprung up all around me.
Every single person, from the archery instructor, to lifeguard to the arts and crafts teacher was a person with a complex life experience. They all joined into the symphony of humanity that went on around us at all hours of the day and night.
The thing about friendships at camp is that you get to be your most authentic self. You can’t afford not to if you want to make the most of the experience. This means that the masks we wore around in the real world had to come off, and we had to look at each other with our true faces.
At times, this was hard, but invaluable. I learned truths about myself, and gained a full picture of who I really was, but I also learned about who other people really were.
I valued what made people laugh, cry and sing, and I came to see that underneath, we really were all the same.
When my time at camp was coming to a close, I had become a counselor in training, and it was my job to guide young campers through the same things that I had gone through. In them, I saw myself. Young, excited and afraid, but so ready to see the world for what it was through the people around me. Being a camp counselor is a special experience. Being the one who helps these children develop memories which they will carry with them for a lifetime is humbling. I still remember each and every counselor I had, and am grateful for the time they took to make sure that I enjoyed myself at camp.
The thing about camp is that no matter how different it seems from the rest of the world, it’s really the same. As I got older and things started to change a bit, it was like I was becoming an old man, finally realizing that I didn’t have forever.
Necessary changes to the camp like finally paving the loose stone path and, redoing the bath house and renovating the dining hall made me nostalgic for the days when I would run on stones and could feel each of them under my feet. The bigger changes, like my friends leaving and not coming back had a deeper impact.
My older sister left for college, not from the driveway of our house, but from the cobble stone path of the camp. I had been avoiding dealing with the fact that she would need to leave, but when she finally did, my brother and other sister and I stood close, and we realized that though we really only had each other in this world, we would all go our separate ways sooner or later.
Next, it was my best friend. I called him, and non-chalantly said he wouldn’t be coming back.
Minor changes like these continued, and I saw the world change and change and change and change, until one day, it was my last summer, 8 years removed from the day I got arrivede, wide eyed, and asked “how does a river run.”
A river runs like time.
Channel 3 Kids Camp is a place of wonder, much like Jurassic Park or Bowie’s Labyrinth. When you drive through it for the first time you are introduced to a beautiful landscape tuck away in nature.
I had no idea when I started working at Channel 3 Kids Camp as a counselor the impact it would have on me. At the time, I was a cynical college freshman with a deep love of writing and performing poetry, hip-hop, and generally being goofy and without shame.
Besides a brief stint at a summer camp in elementary school, this was my first real camp experience. Working with children was something I had always enjoyed. Overseeing 6–8 campers with a CIT (Counselor in Training) was certainly going to be a challenge but it was one I welcomed. During my first two years at camp I was an overnight counselor then transitioned to working day-camp.
This is how I met Raman and his brother. For two-three weeks they were CITs of mine. In that time, a friendship was formed. If I remember right we had both requested to work with each other again after the initial first week.
It never came to fruition but a goal, a dream of mine, was to work exclusively with the CITs in a mentorship compacity.
Summer Camps, much like America itself, is a melting pot. Though sometimes I feel like America itself forgets it is a melting pot, a blend of all cultures and experiences. Channel 3 Kids Camp was partnered with “Camp America” where counselors from the Eastern hemisphere would get to a chance to come to America and not only counsel but experience the country for themselves.
Offers had been made to many of us from America, that if we ever visit Europe, we have a place to stay.
Places like Walmart and the shopping mall sparked curiosity and gave them a glimpse into American culture.
Thanks to this partnership I met and am still friends with so many people from across the globe. Every Wednesday in fact I take part in “Quarantaine Karaoke” on Instagram with my friend Chris. If you were to go to any of our social media pages you will find that we all follow and still support each other immensely. The bond and the companionship has not broken.
Doing this writing challenge with Raman helps us reinforce and grow that friendship. His experience, while similar in some aspects, will be entirely different.
As a counselor, one of my main goals was to show the campers it is okay to be silly and not take life seriously. Take it seriously, of course, when you must but do not let others’ opinions dictate your behavior.
Summer camp was all about fun and I tried my best to draw the line of serious but fun. Every morning I would run around the playground with the campers before breakfast engaging myself into their world.
The origin of Bobby Joe
One morning right before breakfast one of my campers, in the oldest age group, forgot my name. Rather than calling me Zach they called me “Bobby Joe.” At first, immaturely, I was annoyed that a twelve-year-old forgot my name. I repeated to them that my name was Zach, birth certificate, and all.
Being called Bobby Joe was the best moment that happened during the summer. For the remainder of the camp year, no matter the age group, I was called Bobby Joe.
That same camper — who forgot my name — ended up drawing “Bobby Joe.” I have their original artwork hung up in my wife and I’s bedroom. Additionally, I got the drawing of “Bobby Joe” tattooed on my lower leg.
Every day when I wake up I am reminded of Channel 3 Kids Camp and how much those campers made an impact on me.