The infamous wake-up recording of the military bugle that blasts at 6:15 a.m. at camps up and down the entire eastern seaboard does not exist here on the west coast, where sleep away camp is a rarity at best and campers are awakened by Lady Gaga at a lazy 7 a.m. I am considered a cruel freak of motherhood in my neighborhood and peer circles, because I squirrelled away funds all year to send my 12-year old to overnight camp for five long summer weeks. I possess a heart of blackened coal, they whisper, because he’s never been away for that long and he’s too young, they claim. It’s a cultural thing I counter, for on the east coast most kids are sent away as early as early as age 7. It builds character, fosters self-sufficiency, and what the hell else will he do all summer while I, my husband, and even his older brother are working, hmmm? Of course, there was in fact an ulterior motive, and as is the case with nearly all of my extreme over-reactions and sleepless nights, the truth is that middle school drove me to it…
Not surprisingly, 6th grade was more monstrous and unreasonably miserable this year than even I had anticipated. Middle school, by unauthorized definition, is a petri dish of adolescents in which the most vile behavioral characteristics are incubated and given every opportunity to flourish, spreading like a viral epidemic throughout the school. In the clearest modern example of natural selection, kids sort themselves and each other into categories that further drive social and academic habits into 50 shades of good/bad, strong/weak, Griffindor/Slytherin, Jedi/Sith. I personally experienced an entire spectrum of outcomes, inclusive of but not limited to: all of the above. Sometimes wicked villainy, sometimes heroic efforts. Thus, the plot formed early on as to how we would avoid reliving 6th grade, achieve some consistency that errs on the side of Jedi, and thus a summer of character-building self-reliance seemed like just the ticket. On the east coast sleep-away camp is a mandate as vital as college, never questioned and never optional. Having grown up brainwashed with that mindset, I desperately needed camp to be the antidote for middle school, where only good behavior and happy days are fostered in an environment of belonging and universal friendship. He was into it! (That is, once he recovered from the horror of realizing he’d miss Comic Con.) All in all, he too regretted the extreme disharmony that 6th grade levied on our home, and he realized that he had a direct hand in that. He embraced the plan and seemed grateful for the chance to grow up a bit, and come home ready to enter the 7th grade and continue middle school without it being such a scourge. So we labeled, we packed, I even knitted him a camera case and a card case, and like a good mom sans heart of coal, I gave him special stationary and writing implements to ensure we would indeed get letters from him, detailing his personal growth as well as the intense fun and bonding I was absolutely certain of.
At the bus stop, most parents were dropping off their kids for a wimpy 2-week session, and even they were shocked to hear I was sending him for five, looking me up and down and deep into my eyes to see if I had a soul, or to determine what kind of person could do such a thing and was it obvious from the outside? I was the only parent visibly blubbering as the bus pulled away. To console myself and quell my sudden doubts, I immediately uploaded pictures from my phone and dragged them onto a word doc to make stationary. At Comic Con, I collected only the choicest freebies and the coolest exclusives to mail to him at camp, which would make him feel worshipped like rock star royalty. My letters to him are long and descriptive, claiming the pets are despondent without him, the house quiet like a morgue, and no one appreciates my muffins as much as he does, so they just sit all week uneaten unless I distribute them anonymously to confused colleagues at my office. I search the camp web site hourly for newly uploaded pictures, hoping to get a glimpse of him smiling with his arm around bunkmates.
Naturally, my initial gut feeling about camp was right on every count: the letters we receive tell of numerous new BFFs, excessive amounts of fun, games, campouts, campfires, singing, archery, rock climbing, etc. He claims he is having so much fun that it’s all too much to list on small amounts of stationary. He is already planning on begging us to let him return next summer. My hope is nearly restored that we will survive middle school, slightly less scathed.
But alas, despite the apparent happy ending to this particular tale, and the irrefutable proof that another parental plan of mine is a shining success, I am left unaccountably bitter by all of it! You see, the boy is diabolical in his methods: each letter that arrives is addressed specifically to my husband, thanking him for sending him to camp and detailing why it’s so much fun, or my other son, who is apparently the only person he really misses, and whatever else is in those letters I am not privy to. Each relishes their special top-secret communication as only true Boys Club members can. The information I am fed is relayed to me via third party, and only after I bribe the addressee, or threaten within an inch of his life, and even then it is censored for sure. Not a mention or mere hint of me or my existence, despite the belly-aching and subsequent scrimping and saving, planning and packing, emergency knitting, and inevitable maternal tears leading up to his epic summer.
My wake up call, indeed.