A couple of weeks back my son took me by surprise.
It happened shortly after his close friend, Thomas, announced that he was going to summer camp this August. His mom asked me if Alyosha would be interested. My internal response was negative, that he would never agree to leave me for an entire week. Not at the tender age of 11. But I wanted to give him the opportunity to say no and reemphasize his allegiance to me.
My son had always been independent, but within acceptable bounds. He cheerfully went off to school in the morning, but was happy to come home at the end of the day. He had no qualms about riding his bike into town to buy a pack of baseball cards, and never panicked if he lost sight of me in a department store. When he went outside to play, he was always within ear- or eyeshot. In short, I had grown accustomed to feeling the nearness of him. But still, I felt duty-bound to inform him of an opportunity his bosom friend was taking advantage of.
"Alyosha," I intoned one day over lunch, "Thomas is going to summer camp...."
"Me too!" he whooped before I could get out the next syllable.
So. I was unprepared for this. My son had never been away from home for more than a local overnight at a friend's house. After being so closely tied to him for so long, I was finding it hard to imagine life in his absence. Yes, apparently Alyosha was ready for summer camp, but was I?
IN a way, my feelings embarrassed me. I knew that, on the whole, summer camps are good things. They encourage independence, self-reliance, and healthy personal values. Moreover, the camp experience ran briskly in my own blood. When I was in college, I worked three summers in a boys' camp in the Hudson Valley. I recall - in memory yet green - the forest walks, canoe rides, arts and crafts (those popsicle-stick boxes!), and afternoon swims in the cool waters of a crystal-clear lake. The children, most of them, were happy. And when camp ended, the finality of it was almost too much to bear, the partings awash in tears.
I have every reason to believe that summer camps are still like this: cultural still points in a world that has changed so dramatically in so short a time. When I see old photographs of summer camps from the 1940s, '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s, they all look alike: rustic and piney, the waters of a lake or pond sparkling in the background, the boys with crewcuts and the girls with their hair tied back. Even the adult counselors look like happy campers, as if Camp Whatchamahoc is what they have aspired to all their lives.
Summer camp is more than a fun-filled lark for kids. It is an opportunity to teach in the most subtle of ways. When children are in school, they really aren't sharing deeply with one another, because their attention is always task-directed: the history project, the book report, the math assignment. In essence, they become acquainted with each other through their schoolwork and therefore see only surfaces. There have been a couple of occasions when my son brought home a friend from school, only to discover that the classroom walls and teacher vigilance were the only things keeping that child from pure pandemonium: In our house, every hatch had to be battened and the guinea pig put out of harm's way.
In camp, though, being together is part of the learning, and one gets to know every nuance and foible of one's cabin mates. It is an early introduction to the very real art of living with other people, respecting differences, and learning to encourage one another on a rainy day when one is cabin-bound and the lull in activity allows thoughts of home to intrude, followed by the drop of a gentle tear. Friends made at summer camp have a better chance of being friends for life because of all the secrets that have been shared, all the hurts that have needed to be soothed. If a child brings home a friend from summer camp, attesting to his or her decency, it is a pretty good bet that the house will escape unscathed.
I wonder if my son is prepared for all of this. I look out the window and see him in the backyard, tossing baskets with Thomas, pretending to be Michael Jordan. My son's greatest strength is his discerning choice of friends. He has perhaps three or four who are close to him and move in and out of our home like siblings. In camp, he will be put to the test: required to live with kids whom he might not ever choose for friends.
None of this will come to pass for three months, when Alyosha's camp session begins in mid-August. In the interim, we will have the bulk of the summer together, and ample time and space to discuss what lies ahead for him. Perhaps I will let him read this essay; perhaps I will let him discover things for himself. In any case, his enthusiasm continues to run apace for his first solo into the wide world. Summer camp will be a fitting and benign-enough trial for an 11-year-old making his way in life. It is time.