Echoes of summer camp past

It's about old-fashioned goodness (and giggles), not weight loss, SAT prep, or computers

In the outside world, it was headed for a sweltering 96 degrees. But at Camp Matollionequay earlier this month, a breeze from the thick New Jersey pine barrens cooled the porch of the arts and crafts cabin. There, girls quietly strung beads into bracelets - for themselves, for a friend, for me, a visitor. Nearby, the morning lake was still, waiting to bathe parched campers later in the day.

Matolly, built in 1936, is as traditional as a camp can be, with log cabins and wooden screen doors, with songs and chants and rhythmic stomps that echo from mother's generation to daughter's. And there is the requisite boys' camp across the lake.

Why, in an often-cynical teenage world, would girls who wear eyeliner keep coming back to string beads at simple, cellphone-free Matolly? After all, if there is life to be mastered, can't it be done better elsewhere? At camps for perfecting foul shooting, for example? For shedding pounds? For web surfing, SAT prep or, at the very least, for practicing a little math?

"I come here to have fun," seems to be the Matollionequay mantra.


"You can be yourself here," says Erica Ballard, 15, a counselor-in- training.

Be yourself.

"This is the only place I can act my age," says her 12-year-old tablemate Tasha Clicteur, elaborating.

The lineup of activities here is standard: Right a canoe. Hit a bull's eye. Explore an ecosystem. Sing.

But "being yourself" is more elusive. Here, it evidently involves the most important things you can't do in real life: Being silly or sloppy or off-key. Being klutzy or shy or mistake-prone. Being as loud as the lungs will allow on the occasion of a boy-sighting. Bonding time - often "very boo-hoo," as 12-year-old Regina Partlow puts it - is plentiful. With the makeup off, would-be competitors become friends.

All centers on four core values springing from Matolly's tradition as a YMCA camp: caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility.

In an age in which everybody has a values statement posted somewhere, the Matolly crowd's embrace of its values startles. Every camper knows them. Every counselor refers to them. Even the morning "thought" might be a two-minute story about carving a friend's kindness in stone, her hurtfulness in sand. If you break a rule, you'll probably be told how your infraction contradicted one of the four values.

"They ask, 'Am I in trouble?'" says Amanda Throckmorton, a chief counselor. "You don't get in trouble here. We just want you to understand why we don't want you to do it again."

The approach is a welcome relief from even well-meaning grownups on the outside, who may lose sight of the fact that pitching a perfect game is but one part of a good life.

"People don't yell here. They're calm," said Courtney Scantling, 13, though she did allow that, with a campful of girls, "we get moody sometimes." Handling moods and personalities - "getting along with all kinds of people" - is a big part of the growth experience.

Ms. Throckmorton says that during training she'd been skeptical of the appeal of a simple culture in a time of text messaging. "I wondered, 'Do the kids really buy this stuff?' But now, I find myself in the back of the tractor, too, singing at the top of my lungs."

If there's any specified goal, it's winning the coveted camp honor bestowed at a poignant and dramatic ceremony the night before camp closes. The award goes to the camper thought to most embody the virtues of caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility.

Director Melissa Bridge says, "It can go to the most unlikely person. They get it not for being the most competitive or for being best at something. Maybe it's for a change they made within their life while they were at camp."

What the winner gets for her efforts is ... a feather - a green feather. Trivial to you and me, it will be among her life's most prized possessions, and will remain in the memories of those who strove with her for goodness those two weeks.

Could that be the lesson of this beading/giggling curriculum - goodness? Can camp be that simple? That wanting to be your self - your true self - means wanting to be good, of all things?

But being a "good girl" has become a second-rate goal for our postliberation daughters. Their aim, we all know, is strength. Independence. Fitness. To aim to be good seems a waste somehow - a frittering away on others of precious energy that could be put to productive, actualizing growth.

In the 20 years I've been a mother, I've been leery of the goal-riddenness of my children's world. I've opted for downtime over scheduled time for them when possible. But in the process, I have always wondered whether I shortchange them by not sending them off to Latin enrichment or the Canada trip. Finding Matolly was sheer good fortune - a request of my youngest to do something fun with a friend.

So as I write, my 14-year-old is back for the third time at her beloved Matollionequay, probably bumping along in a wagon with two dozen others, belting out "Build Me Up Buttercup." She draws close to another bittersweet Greenfeather Night, when her counselors-in-training will illuminate for her the physical and metaphorical perils along the path to the evening celebration.

And, as my daughter knows well, the world is a more beautiful place because goodness, as symbolized by a feather, is still deemed worthy of a camp of its own.

Mary Beth McCauley, a freelance writer and mother of three, won the 2000 Religion Newswriters Association Supple Award for Writer of the Year for work in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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