"Every once in a while, I read an article that says something like “One of the things the unites Jewish Americans is going to Jewish summer camp!” This statement is then followed by some quotes about the good times people had at those camps.
Statements like this, however, make me extremely angry and upset. Yes, I’m Jewish, but not only wasn’t I allowed to go to sleep=away camp, at the camp I was allowed to go to – day camp – I had a miserable time.
You see, as a child, I had a double whammy – serious asthma and autism (today, what I had would probably be called Asperger’s).
Before the age of 2, I was taken twice to the emergency room with asthmatic attacks. It seems like from the age of around 8 to 12, I spent a third of my time hunched over, wheezing, coughing and inhaling steam from my old-fashioned steam inhaler. At the age of 8, a doctor told me I shouldn’t take part in strenuous sports like basketball, should have only limited gym at school, and should spend a few months at a convalescent home.
While my parents, happily, didn’t do the last, they told me constantly that I was too damaged to do most physical activities. As late as age 15, when some kids invited my to play football, I foolishly told my mother, who angrily told me she’d make a special trip and stand outside the playground just to make sure I didn’t play.
As far as my autsm is concerned, at the age of 4 or so, my nursery school teacher told my parents that I was acting withdrawn and not interacting with the other kids. They recommended a nursery school, just established, for “emotionally disturbed” children with a psychoanalytic orientation. I ended up going there for three years. The psychiatrist there (whom I was told was a “play doctor”) diagnosed me as having “infantile autistic psychosis.” In time, I became more outgoing, formed friendships with the other kids and even led them in games. This continued the first year I was in “regular school,” meaning public school. Then, however, my mother had a breakdown and had to go to a psychiatric ward for six weeks.
Little by little, I became withdrawn again.
This was augmented by the fact that I couldn’t adjust to the sports-oriented, rough-and-tumble play of the other boys—not only was I very awkward, but I froze up when they threw the ball to me. I also had no idea how to take part in their rapid, back-and-forth teasing style of humor and was easily hurt by their jokes. By third grade, I was one of the least popular kids in the class. I went to a Freudian-type psychiatrist once a week, then once a months, but that didn’t help me.
Anyway, I went to day camp for three years, each year to a different day camp. My main memory is walking in a trance, trying to follow the other boys and girls wherever they were going, but basically being ignored. One time, in a vain effort to make friends, I bought some sort of Tinker Toy in to camp and showed it to one of the other kids.
“Can I have it for keeps?” asked this kid, who was a bit of a wise guy. “Yeah,” I said. Even though I wanted to keep the toy, I hoped this would make me more accepted. I didn’t.
The second year, I did make a friend—another kid who didn’t really fit in. His name was Eddie, and he was always making up stories and fantasies involving imaginary characters. Since I was doing the same thing at home with my brother, I fit right in with Eddie. He called his characters the “Moo-Moos.” One day, we all went on a field trip to a school that had a swimming pool. Most of the kids, especially the boys, ran into the pool enthusiastically. I was scared—actually TERRIFIED—of the water, especially deep water. Eddie wanted to know why I wasn’t going into the pool. “Moo-Moos don’t swim,” I answered weakly. He went in anyway. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I conquered my fears and, at long last, took and passed a swimming class.
The third year, my mother told me that she had a problem with the day camp, and that the counselor wasn’t very nice. Therefore, she decreed, I wouldn’t be going to day camp anymore. My younger brother, on the other hand, still went to day camp during the summers, and even learned how to swim. Interestingly, around the same time I was in the Cub Scouts and I fit in fairly well. I believe the difference is that in the Cub Scouts, the “den mothers” actually planned activities, got the kids involved and were constantly interacting with them, whereas in day camp, the counselors took us to and from our destinations, but otherwise left us to their own devices. I remember when I was 12, my mother took me for a walk somewhere, pointed to a settlement house, and said, “They’re getting ready for the summer day camp.” I said nothing, but inwardly I was very jealous and EXTREMELY angry because I still wanted to go.
In a few years, my parents started sending my brother to sleep-away camp, one of the very same Jewish summer camps I mentioned earlier. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go because of my health, even though my asthma had begun to get better by that point. When it came to my asthma, there was no arguing with my mother.
I needed her to be in my corner, but instead she constantly said things like “You have to play with the cards you’re dealt with,” “You have many handicaps,” and, simply, “You’re handicapped!”
There were some special camps for asthmatic children, I later learned, and maybe if the doctor had told my mother about them things would have been different, but information was hard to come by in those pre-internet days.
When I was 15, I thought I found an way out—looking at a local summer job board for kids, I saw a position advertised for a waiter at a summer camp. I called them, but made the mistake of telling them that I had asthma. “Well, we don’t know,” said the person on the other end. “We’ve had to send several of our campers home in the past because of asthmatic conditions.” I was so miffed that, for spite, I didn’t register for a “Teen Day Trips” program in our neighborhood – something that my parents WOULD have approved of.
In college, the summer camp issue came up again when many of the kids talked about working as counselors in summer camps. It seemed like 90 percent of them had been counselors. Since I hadn’t had camping experience no one would have hired me as a counselor. “Yeah, most summers I’ve work as a counselor at one of the summer camps upstate,” one of the kids said, as casually as if he’d said, “I went to the store to get a gallon of milk yesterday.” I could have killed him.
Fast-forward 20 years later. I was working as an assistant editor at a trade magazine when I noticed a small ad in the Village Voice for the “National Guitar Summer Workshop,” a music camp and intensive workshop in Connecticut for both kids and adults. I signed up for two weeks. I had a great time—most of the day we took courses, like playing our instruments in different styles (I played keyboard and bass), songwriting, composition, music theory and so on. At nights, we played in several ensembles—I was in both a rock group and a country group. The kids and the adults lived in different dorms, but we were all housed on the grounds of a fancy private school that was out for the summer. On lunch in the cafeteria, the “cafeteria lady” greeted us all with, “Hello, campers!”