We were almost done, but we were stuck. We stood on one side of the pole, and she was by herself on the other. The pole was strung between two trees at about shoulder level and we were forbidden to touch it. We had gotten everyone over the pole, but there was still one camper left, with no one to help her on her side of the pole. We had not thought our plan all the way through, and now we had to find a way to get our last teammate over or risk starting all over. We had navigated planks, tires and poles in various configurations, and this was our final challenge of the afternoon. We were tired, sweaty, and frustrated with each other.
I was thirteen, in the midst of a growth spurt, and lacking confidence about what I could do physically. This was the first year of Explorers Camp, and at the time it accepted eight to thirteen year olds all in one big session, so I was one of the oldest campers. Looking at that last camper, I felt the eyes of my teammates looking expectantly at me for what to do next, which was very new for me. I got a couple of the other campers on either side of me to lift me high enough to reach down over the bar without touching it. I grasped both of the last camper's arms and pulled her straight up, until some of the teammates on my side of the bar were able to grab her feet and safely guide her over. We were euphoric in our team success at a challenge that originally seemed impossible, and I was bursting with pride at the part I had played. Frankly, I was surprised at my new-found strength that had played a decisive role. The fact that when things got difficult, people were looking to me and listening to me was intriguing but confusing.
Even more confusing was the attention I received from Courtney over the course of my week at Explorers. She was twelve - so a younger woman - and at thirteen I was ill-equipped to deal with the dazzling glare of an unrequited crush. She was remarkably savvy at finding ways for us to suddenly be out sight of the rest of camp at the back of a hike, or engineering the seat next to me in the dining hall. I can't say I discouraged her, because at thirteen I was desperate for any and all attention. There's also a certain momentum that builds when a camp sniffs out a potential couple. Boys start asking when you'll kiss her. Giggling emissaries from a group of girls come to grill an intermediary in the boy's group about plans for the dance. Counselors have a knowing look in their eye, and lightly tease. As the week developed, I felt the spotlight of camp focusing around Courtney and me, and I was buzzing with its energy, if not exactly romantic feelings for Courtney. With busy days, I was able to navigate a friendship with Courtney, but I began to worry about the impending dance, slow songs and all.
I had certain ideas about what to expect at a dance from the dimly lit middle school shindigs I had attended. Back in middle school, there were loud DJs and a few chaperons standing on the edges of hundreds of students, while the older students found dark make-out corners. That is not a camp dance. I encourage you to read John Ohmer's piece on camp dances, because the goofy outfits and enthusiastic counselor thrashing that might be interpreted as dancing has not changed much since I was a camper.
I took my cues from the counselors, and rather than being cornered by Courtney as I feared, Courtney and I made up goofy dances and tried to get the rest of camp to try them; I remember "the penguin" was especially popular. We made it our mission to get the youngest and shiest campers involved. During the dreaded slow songs, we formed big circles with other campers. Again, I was in a situation where I was unexpectedly leading.
I don't remember how it came up, but I remember hanging out by the pool the next day with Christina, a counselor, and she asked me a question that helped define my next sixteen years, "Have you ever thought about being a counselor?" I don't think I had any kind of plans past dinner, so I definitely hadn't thought of being a counselor. As a kid, I was never able to answer when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and, to this day, five years into my teaching career, I still wonder what I will do when I get around to becoming an adult. But this wasn't the open-ended, "What do you want to be?" it was, "Have you ever thought about being a counselor?" Christina's unspoken implication was not lost on me: "You should be a counselor." Being a counselor was not something ten, fifteen, twenty years into a murky, unknowable future. It was not something that required going to medical school or years of training. Being a counselor, as it turned out, was something adult and meaningful that I could (and would) do a mere three summers later. My experiences of leadership that week at Explorers and someone older and cooler than me telling me that I had done well was a defining moment for me and how I saw myself.
The summer of '98 was what brings me back here, yet again, sixteen summers later, and all the summers in between. Every new role I've had at Shrine Mont Camps gave me a set of experiences that shape how I see myself as a leader and a human being. As a counselor, I flourished under more responsibility than most of my teenage peers living in Arlington. (One of the little known secrets of camp ministry is that it has a significantly greater impact on the counselors than the campers.) In my early twenties, I found myself suddenly leading not just campers, but other counselors. As a bookish introvert, it is unlikely I would have sought out leadership without the independence and concrete experiences backed by the positive reinforcement and encouragement of my counselors that I experienced at camp. At the high school where I now teach, I chair my grade level, something I never would have been confident or skilled enough to try without my leadership experiences at camp in that summer of '98, and each one since.
By David Churchman
It's not too late! Explorers Camp Session II
(ages 12-14) still has space. Click here to register.
David Churchman first went to camp at Shrine Mont 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.