Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who go to summer camp and those who don't.

In a camp experience that keeps on giving, my husband and his brother frequently talk about the summer they went away to sleepover camp. They say they hated it. Their mother claims they loved it. They argue about it regularly at family holiday meals.

My own children went to over-night camp sponsored by our local Y. The camp is in Michigan and they all loved it, starting the summer after third grade until we ran out of money and could no longer afford to send them. (Once again, the youngest child gets ripped off, with only two years of camp under his belt. Sadly, we won't be able to afford his therapy bills, either.)

One year when I was a kid, I decided that I wanted to go away for two weeks to Camp Metamora in Michigan with my Girl Scout troop. Unfortunately, I announced this to my parents the day before the final payment was due in full. I don't remember how much it was, but from the look on my mom's face, it must have been astronomical.

Ever-practical, my mother said that, while she appreciated my desire to go away to summer camp, it was a big expense that we had not planned for. If they allowed me to go to sleep-away camp, the rest of the family would have to give up any form of summer vacation and that wouldn't be fair. I pouted. "But," she said, "If you really want to go, you can start saving up your money now for next summer and if you can save up half, Daddy and I will pay the other half." I wish I had that kind of parental discipline with my kids.

Camp Metamora never happened, but not because I couldn't save up the money. All my friends who went that year hated it. It rained, it was cold, the food was bad, there were bugs. They hated it.

While my more well-to-do friends suffered through overnight camp, I went to a Girl Scout day camp that involved a 40-minute bus ride each way. I don't remember where it was, but I do remember that we rode past a big cemetery and all lifted our feet off the floor of the bus when we passed so the dead souls couldn't get us. The girls were from in and around the greater Detroit-metropolitan area and all were new to me.

I loved that camp. I remember one girl in particular, Judy Martin, was very nice, and her mom was one of the leaders. We made s'mores and god's eyes and lanyards. We played Red Rover and sang camp songs. We hiked and played on the playground. But the best part of day camp for me was the bus ride.

A tiny African American girl sat on the seat across from me the first day. I later found out that her name was Selena McGee, but for the first three days she just stared at me. I had very blond hair at the time, and when she finally got up the courage to talk, she asked if my hair was made of real gold and if she could touch it. From that day on, Selena spent all our time on the bus playing with my hair — brushing it, styling it and, long before Bo Derek, putting it in corn rows. It was like have my own personal stylist aboard a mobile beauty parlor.

This year, for the first time, I'm teaching a creative writing camp for 7-11 year olds through our city's Cultural Arts Program. It's an afternoon-only day camp and I have eight campers, all girls. In the grown up writing world, this would be called a writing retreat and it would cost a fortune.

Just like my childhood day camp, we play games, sing songs, and make crafts. Only the games we play are improv or story-based games; and the crafts we do include making our own journals, decorating book bags, and writing letters with feather quills. We also write poems, pick a word of the day, and take weekly walking field trips to the library and beach. My brother calls it Geek Camp. I call it a blast. The camp combines all my favorite things — writing, teaching, books and kids (who go home at the end of the day).

I remind my writers, as we head to the library or beach or playground, to use all their five senses. When we get back, we try to write down five sensory details that we noticed along the way. We talk about what it means to be a writer:
  • writers write
  • writers support each other
  • writers ask questions
  • writers pay attention to details
  • writers read
Each time I remind my campers of these writerly attributes, I remind myself, too. We work on our long stories in a "Stinky First Draft" spiral binder (with a tip of the hat to Anne Lamott), because writers write. When one of us shares her writing, we give three Likes and a Wish:

"I like the main character's name."
"I like the detail of the fluffy pillow right in the middle of her bed."
"I like that I could almost smell her birthday cake baking."
"I wish I knew more about her two best friends."

We use this method of critiquing because writers support each other. We choose a word of the day that is new to most of us, because writers ask questions. We note our delicious details in our journals, because writers pay attention. 

And each day, I read aloud to them, because writers read. On Friday, we finished our first read aloud, called A Beginning, a Muddle and an End by Avi, a book full of plays on words and serious ideas about the writing process. I hadn't read this book in a long time, and was delighted to rediscover one of my favorite bits of writerly advice. Edward the Ant tells his would-be author friend that if he wants to attract readers, then he shouldn't write writing, he should write reading. Brilliant. I wish I had written it.

Below is a silly Dr. Demento animation of Allan Sherman's camp classic, Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah. After you watch it, click here and leave a comment about your own camp experiences.

Photo credit: roasting marshmallows by jenny.nash712 via a Creative Commons license.


Linda Gartz said...

Your camp sounds like it just may inspire a future generation of writers. As you list all the things writers do -- and then we add on life -- it's really tough to get it all done. What a great idea for a camp!

Niranjana (Brown Paper) said...

I just reviewed a memoir by a woman who wasn't allowed to go to summer camp (amongst other things) as a girl, and who decides, at age thirty, that it's not too late. Yup, she goes to camp, and she loves it.

I've never been to camp, but this creative writing camp sounds especially wonderful.

Victoria said...

I want to go to your writing camp! I also want a copy of that book for my kids, so thanks for suggesting it.

My only summer camp experiences was family camping--talk about therapy bills.

Annie Boreson said...

I loved you post...and summer camp. Of course I was always ready to come home...with a million bug bites and a suitcase full of dirty clothes. My parents still laugh at my camp photos. Not one person in them...just weird shots of bathing suits drying on a pole and the rest were of the mangy dog that waited for picnic table scraps. Thanks for the memories!

Anonymous said...

I never went to camp.

Can I go now? :)

Susan Bearman said...

Niranjana — my kids' camp does a week-long family camp. We've never done it, but it sounds like fun. I have other friends who have gone to Camp Michigania (the University of Michigan alum family camp) for decades and they love it. Your adult summer camp memoir sounds great.

Victoria — we camped a lot as a family, as well. Mostly good memories, though.

Annie — Those are the best kind of photos. And it's the bug bites that do me in while camping. I'm allergic to mosquitoes.

wosushi — there are lots of adult camps out there, so sure, go for it. Sadly, my writing camp is for 7-11 year olds, but based on the feedback I'm getting, maybe next summer I should run a writing day camp for grown ups.

Meryl said...

Great post. I remember (as a very young kid) listening to Allen Sherman records with this song. I loved them! I was not, however, a great camper. My parents sent me away too late - clicks had formed and it was difficult to break in.

My kids go to nerd camp and love it!

Thanks for stopping by my post today. I loved your message and anecdote on how to fix cursing! (LOL) Also loved your bedtime routine - very similar to my bedtime post! You always have good advice!

I look forward to more.

Susan Bearman said...

Meryl — I think you're right about cliques and camp. My kids started going when all their friends did, but it might have been hard to break in later, especially for girls. As my daughter grew and her friendships started to change, I told her to pick the camp that sounded like the most fun to her. That way she was sure to have a good time no matter who was part of her group. It seemed to work.

And, yeah, a little common sense goes a long way with bedtimes. But sometimes, a little common sense is hard to find.

Kim Moldofsky said...

Your camp sounds fabulous! I was never much of a happy camper, but we're sending the youngest (11) off for two weeks on Monday. I think he will love it. My older one is going away later this summer--him I'm not so sure...

I look forward to hearing more about your camp (almost wrote home--guess what's on my mind?).

Unknown said...

I'll come to your camp, especially if we get to make s'mores! Lovely post. I'm not doing a camp but am running a creative writing course for homeschooled kids. I love this sort of thing.

Susan Bearman said...

Thanks Kim — I'll keep you posted when I run the adult version. Hope your kids have fun at sleep-away camp. Hope you have fun in their absence.

Kelly, I couldn't sleep last night thinking about all the fun things we could do at an adult creative writing day camp. I'd love to help writers put more fun into their process. Good luck with your homeschool program.

Maggie said...

I want to go to your camp! Very inspiring post - I'm going to keep this one.

My youngest is at his first sleep-away camp right now, sleeping in a tent on the lawn at a yacht club learning how to sail. I didn't want to leave him alone - my baby, you know, so I got his big brother to take a week off of HIS job to be a counselor there. I'm glad they're together; looked like there were definitely cliques when I dropped them all off.

Susan Bearman said...

Hey, Maggie. There is hope for the grownup day camp for writers. The woman who supervises the kids camp is shopping the idea around. I'll keep you posted.