If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Summer camp is as American as...well, summer camp.

As I have mentioned before on this blog, my wife and I have spent most of the last three years living abroad, first in England and then in The Gambia. While in the U.K., I worked as an English instructor, teaching conversational English to businesspeople from all over the world, more than two dozen countries in all. This has led to a lot of time spent explaining America--or things American--to people who have seen the U.S. in movies, on TV, in the news, and even through a tourist's eyes, but still don't know quite what to make of it. I have tried to explain the rules of baseball and American football, shared bewilderment over how we possibly re-elected George Bush, and reassured people that neither Baywatch nor Beverly Hills 90210 is a realistic representation of life in America. Of all the topics I have had to cover again and again, though, the one that is met with the most confusion and wonder is the peculiarly American institution of summer camp.

The idea that children would escape from school, only to go straight into another environment entirely structured for them by adults, is completely bizarre to people from most other countries. It takes a lot of explaining, especially to get across the variety of things that we refer to as camp: overnight camps, sports camps, day camps, etc.. Summer in other countries is for vacationing with your family and for doing whatever you please at home. The idea of summer camp is so foreign that the Spanish language doesn't have an appropriate translation. The closest is campamento, which literally means something more like encampment.

I should be in as good a position as anyone to explain this whole summer camp thing. Not only have I had many of the usual childhood experiences with camps--the good, the bad, and the ugly--I have spent most of my summers, from college through my teaching career, working at a variety of camps. In fact, my experiences during my college summers teaching swimming lessons at my former high school played a big role in my decision to become a teacher. And yet, I don't know if I ever really managed to explain to all those non-Americans what camp is all about.

Today begins yet another summer working at a camp, in this case the summer program at the school where I've been teaching since January. It seems appropriate, then, to spend some time this summer blogging about the educating that takes place while the school doors are closed. Many of my own ideas about what an ideal school would look like were formed during my various summer jobs, so I won't be wandering far from the original purpose of this blog. Maybe along the way, I'll find just the right words to explain the peculiarly American phenomenon that is summer camp.

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