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Clap Your Hands, Say No – Impressions of an American Summer Camp

Tessa Johnstone



SALIENT’S Tessa Johnstone reports from Texas, recovering after a summer spent working at an American Summer Camp.
When I was offered a position as Yearbook Editor at an all-girls camp in Massachusetts, I had delightful visions of myself strolling through New England woods with camera and notebook, talking with children charmed by my Kiwi accent; I had high hopes I would be able to capture the American summer camp experience and have a holiday. I was naïve. And now I am tired.
Every year, hundreds of young, impressionable young Kiwis are shipped off to American summer camps to work for less than minimum wage, 24 hours a day, in exchange for ‘the summer of [their] life’. I was one of the suckers sold on ‘the experience’, and in June I escaped the onset of winter, fleeing to the balmier US climate.
The camp I’m to work at is in the middle of nowhere: 15 minutes to the nearest Post Office and General Store, 20 minutes to the nearest pub, an hour to the nearest Mall.
They ship in the international staff first, presumably to give us a crash course in American ways and save us a certain amount of embarrassment in our first ‘cultural exchanges’. The Australians and Kiwis (there are six of us) learn that using the phrase “I need to use the toilet” is a little too descriptive for delicate American ears, and that unless we speak slowly and extend our vowels, Americans will think we are saying something dirty or impolite.
There are also French, Korean, Colombian, Croatian, Moldovan, Turkish, Egyptian, Russian and Taiwanese staff – meals are a veritable UN lunchroom, and comparing each other’s words for vegetables and shoes, as well as the endless miscommunication, is hours of fun.
When the American staff eventually arrives they are a mixed bunch. Aside from their overuse of the words ‘obnoxious’ and ‘discombobulated’, I can’t make any generalisations about them. Of course there are some who fit the stereotype, the kind who warrant that anti-American sentiment for their politics and stupidity. But the rest are all very different from each other, and are unique and loveable in their own ways.
Among them, there’s Ellie, a sarcastic 16-year-old, always peering disbelievingly over her glasses. She gets around in grandpa boxer shorts and can be overheard having conversations with her parents which contain a lot of “gooosh Dad” and “why can’t you just give me some privacy.” I now picture her at home watching cartoons for hours, eating some sugar-death cereal in her boxer shorts.
Ellie’s best friend at camp is Sarah, the apologetically tall 19-year-old dyke with short cropped hair and tattoos of birds and latin phrases, that every girl at camp, gay or not, has a ‘girl crush’* on.
Emma is another favourite. Always dressed in clothes three sizes too big for her and hoop earrings, she looks like a teenage boy, and is the camp’s sole hip-hop fan. At the end of the summer she is voted ‘Most Likely to Beatbox Her Way Out of a Tricky Situation’ as well as ‘Mostly Likely to Be Shot by a Rapper’. When I first meet her she talks about her three-month trek on the Appalachian Trail – her skill in picking locks makes me wonder if it was some kind of delinquent transformation program.
There’s Lily, 17, all braces and acne with a sense of humour which has her constantly wriggling round like a child who needs to use the ‘bathroom’. Lily has a trucker’s cap which has ‘Plato’ printed across the front, her campers think they’re smart ’cause they know it means plate’ in Spanish. It’s on the basis of this hat that Lily and I talk about starting a Philosophy club at camp.
Every Thursday, we have ‘Club Night’, where staff members share an interest or skill with campers for a couple of hours. My first attempt is Music Appreciation Club, hosted by Lily, Emma and myself. To ‘sell’ it to the kids we have a Boombox and a variety of CDs which we are playing snippets of. It comes to Emma’s turn, she snatches a Notorious B.I.G CD from Lily and goes “Wait, wait, I know which track it is…” There’s about five seconds of quiet anticipation from the 300 or so young girls in the crowd. She hits play, and the rhymes boom out of the stereo: “All the motherfuckers in the house go –.” It’s the wrong track. There’s a collective gasp from the girls, with a few stifled sniggers from the counsellors. Surprisingly, only one lone camper signed up for Music Appreciation that night (Leah, who’s, like, really, into System of a Down). But luckily, only one girl signed up for Feminism Club as well, so we joined forces. With Ani DiFranco and Le Tigre as a soundtrack, we educated two 12-year-olds about second wave feminism. Inevitably, abortion came up. “Do you guys know what Roe V. Wade is?” – “Um, I only just finished fifth grade,” was the response. It was a hilarious night, and I learned the trick to Club Night was to come up with something no kid in their camp mind would want to participate in. Current Events, Tea Club, and Knitting Club were other goodies.
They sing – you sing – at least four or five times a day. After every meal, at flag raising, at flag lowering, and before they go to bed. Not to mention the bouts of spontaneous singing which occur at any mention of Kelly Clarkson or High School Musical.
Camp is hard work. The working day is essentially 24/7, with a precious few hours off a week. Having to be somewhere every minute of the day is tough, but the really tough thing is watching yourself fall into the resulting sleep-deprived delirium. It starts with some mild enthusiasm, which can be put down to be being surrounded by Americans all day. But then comes the clapping and cheering, and then the hollering. And before you know you’re simultaneously jumping and clapping and singing along to a song about a goat or a good-looking gun slinger. On a full a stomach. They sing – you sing – at least four or five times a day. After every meal, at flag raising, at flag lowering, and before they go to bed. Not to mention the bouts of spontaneous singing which occur at any mention of Kelly Clarkson or High School Musical.
As a devoted spiritual fence-sitter, I was nervous about compulsory Chapel on Sundays. But it soon became a highlight; it was not so much a time of prayer and reflection, as one of entertainment. The first Chapel of the summer was hosted by a gaggle of 16-year-olds and featured readings from The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants; and a child-friendly rendition of a Christina Aguilera tune. I came to look forward to watching small children struggle with sound systems and attempts at profundity. Plus I got to shave my legs and wear a dress.
Personal hygiene, not to mention notions of looking ‘pretty’, became a low priority very quickly. I willingly went for three days without showering or changing my clothes, and it was a point of contention within the camp as to whether or not swimming in the murky, brown lake counted as a cleansing, or some kind of bacterial dousing. For some of the girls, their filth was a matter of pride, or at the very least a fundamental part of being at camp.
Camp is also an arts and crafts kind of place. I haven’t been so in touch with my creative talents since I was in kindergarten. I found myself constantly with snips in my hands, and glitter and glue all over my face. It was fun for a while, but it was whilst making the giant cardboard crab to go with the giant purple octopus, that I began to wonder where things had gone wrong. How did I get here?
If I have learned anything from camp, it’s that a sense of humour is one’s best defence. In the last two months, I have dressed as a superhero, a game-show host, a golf nerd and had I had more energy, there would have been a lobster too. I have worn plastic cutlery in my hair and my camp compatriots have worn underwear on their head and knee-high socks in 30 degree heat for days at a time, just to avoid being ‘spooned’. Camp is ridiculous. People come to camp just to be ridiculous. It thrives on people’s willingness to make fools of themselves, and do it in costumes made by your own bare hands.
But despite all the heat and work and absurdity, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Things I will miss: sitting with and making fun of the same people every single meal, hysterical sleep-deprived giggling fits, coming to breakfast in costume, the sound and energy of 300 girls cheering in a hall, and then at the end of camp, the sound of 300 girls sobbing like it was the end of childhood. Ah, good times, good times.
*In the absence of boys/men at this particular camp, it is perfectly acceptable to openly crush on a girl, even if you are heterosexual. If you are a usually attracted to girls though, it is a ‘lesbian crush’, and not spoken about.