I am willing to admit that I might be addicted to the internet. The ability to access the sum total of the world's knowledge at any time with a device that fits in my pocket is something that I take completely for granted.
Yesterday during lunch, when the question of whether Cassiopeia was a moon of Jupiter or a constellation, I had no inclination to trust my dubious memory of middle school field trips to the planetarium. Instead, I reached immediately into my back pocket for my phone, which told me in seconds that Cassiopeia is one of 48 constellations originally listed by the Greek philosopher Ptolemy, all of which I promptly forgot before dessert came out. Besides relegating all factual memory to my phone, I have a compulsion to check every few minutes to see if a person I haven't talked to since high school has posted a new picture of his lunch.
When I am not at Shrine Mont, I am a high school math teacher, so as addicted as I am to the Internet and my phone, I know my habit pales in comparison to the addiction of my students. There is no non-academic time during the school day that a majority of students are not staring at a screen: lunch, homeroom, walking down the hallway, using the restroom, each student lit from below by glowing rectangles. Even academic times, when students have empirical evidence that I will confiscate their phones, there are frequent furtive glances at their laps.
Now, a potentially more controversial confession: I am not ashamed of being addicted to the Internet. I live thousands of miles away from my family and some of my closest friends, and those casual, accidentally-bumped-into-you-at-the-store conversations that are the blood in the veins of any living relationship wouldn't be possible without my compulsive social media checking. And I have no reverence for keeping a lot of factual knowledge in my organic brain; I'm content to look up Cassiopeia again the next time it comes up. I think the rise of Snapchat, a photo and video messaging application that sends posts that disappear after a few seconds, as the dominant social media of my students shows a savvy that my generation lacked, as evidenced by constant news items of job applications of people my age thwarted because of unfortunate pictures with too many red cups permanently associated with that person's online identity. But when my students and I use it responsibly, the Internet makes us more productive, smarter and better connected to the people we love.
That said, at camp, one of our chief goals is to create a safe "place apart" to build strong communities, which is hard enough in isolation. But phones introduce that small complication of the entire outside world. The decision used to be made for us; remoteness and mountainous terrain defended Shrine Mont from reliable cell phone signals. There were secret spots, where - if the wind was right and you held your phone at the perfect height - you could make a call, but over the years, those secret spots have grown and merged, and now some networks have high-speed data streaming all over the Shrine Mont property. As cellphone networks improved, the reality of being a hotel in the twenty-first century - even a very rustic hotel - brought WiFi to many of the main buildings on the property. For better or worse, there is now a choice involved about how "apart" those who come to Shrine Mont truly are.
So, the choice that Shrine Mont Camps made is "no phones." As much as I love my phone, I think fifty-one weeks a year of complete global knowledge in my pocket is probably enough. The people I love who live 1,000 miles away can wait a week for me to like the adorable picture of their puppy, so that I can be fully in the moment to discuss the best way to eat a butt bun with the people sitting in front of me. Campers and counselors putting their phones aside for their week (or weeks) at camp promotes the message that the most important thing at this moment is the place we are and the people in it. I'm not overly worried that we need to teach campers that there are times and places for cellphones (everything has a season), but I do think it takes a lifetime of practice to learn how to be completely present and open to the people around you, and practicing this without a cellphone is a nice set of training wheels we provide to our campers.
A few nights ago, when I was sitting with Cabin Hairspray, one of the MAD Camp cabins named for the eponymous musical, for their feeling check, an errant notification sounded from my pocket, which provoked much indignation from the campers. I promised I only had the phone to take pictures for the camp blog/Instagram, but close to the end of their week at camp, these 12- and 13-year-olds implicitly understood that my cell phone threatened the sanctity of the community they had built together. Many of these exact same campers who berated me for my cellphone may spend the entirety of their ride home glued to a screen. I am sure many of the parents of these same campers have struggled with prying their kids - and maybe themselves, too - away from devices for five minutes. But for one week, these campers were so completely invested in a community that they didn't even notice they were unplugged.
By David Churchman
There's still space in the following camps:
Art Camp (ages 9-15) – August 2-10
Explorers Session II (ages 12-14) – July 23-31
SHYC (rising freshman to rising seniors) – July 20-27
David Churchman first went to camp at Shrine Mont in 1993, the day after his 8th birthday, and he's been back just about every summer ever since. As a camper, he attended Soccer Camp (now St. Sebastian's), Explorers, and MAD camp, and then went on to work at all of those camps.
He is working to end guitar hegemony at camp, and plays the accordion wherever a camp will let him.
Off the mountain, David resides in San Antonio and works as a middle school math teacher.
Spreading the good news of Shrine Mont Camps into the Valley of the World.
The View from the Mountain is written by a rotating cast of staff writers and contributors.