What a difference a year at Swat makes

This past summer marks my eighth and last at the same Jewish sleepaway camp tucked in the Catoctin mountains of Pennsylvania. When I left for home at the end of two exhausting months as a counselor, I wasn’t sad to go. For the first time in the history of my attendance, I did not ugly cry during final goodbyes. I didn’t even regular cry. I stood stony-faced on the edge of a sobbing mass of 130 staff members and only felt sad that I wasn’t sadder. I had, in one year’s time, come to feel completely alienated from a community by which I had long felt embraced. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this summer followed my first year at Swarthmore.

I do not want to portray Swarthmore as some utopian wonderland of unconditional acceptance and love, but I don’t think it would be a complete inaccuracy to say that the College more closely reflects (or attempts to reflect) that ideal than many other spaces I’ve encountered. Ironically, for many years I would’ve said the same about my summer camp. I did, no less: I wrote about imagined parallels between Swarthmore and Capital Camps in the ‘Why Swarthmore?’ application essay that brought me here, about a sense of community, of belonging, of silliness, of meaning, of teamwork. Unfortunately, after this summer, I don’t believe my own words.

Unlike when I was choosing Swarthmore, I did not spend endless hours sifting through options and information to find The Right Camp for Me. I was ten years old, a family friend had had a fun time at Capital Camps and that was all I needed to know for me to happily follow her to my first year of sleepaway camp. I fit in easily enough. I sang Hebrew songs, I cheered during color war, I ziplined, I ate ice pops, I canoed. I loved every single second of it for seven summers.

That being said, I definitely was not “cool” at camp (or elsewhere, for that matter). For most of my summers there, I was acne-ridden, brace-faced, socially awkward, and actively nerdy. I liked weird books and Rubik’s cubes and the Internet. In the unofficial but salient Weird Cabin/Cool Cabin dichotomy, I was easily a member of the former. The Cool Cabin girls weren’t malicious; they were just those who boys thought were cute and who were blessed early on with the interpersonal skills I’ve only recently learned myself. Even so, as I saw it, everyone at camp coexisted so joyfully and peacefully as one big community that the social dynamics were of little importance.

Like it has for many a dorky tween, maturity transformed my dweebiness into quirkiness. By tenth grade I had emerged mostly victorious from the trials of awkward adolescence, with little but a hipster wardrobe and a ukulele to evidence my distance from the mainstream. When I graduated high school, I returned to camp as a staff member after a two year hiatus. I had a great summer: I helped campers battling homesickness, bandaged scraped knees, smiled through exhaustion and sticky situations. The company of my small handful of camp best friends (Hi Emma and Ilana!) and the good-natured small talk with the rest of the staff kept me afloat. Still, I felt that I had not met my full potential as a counselor. I knew that I could have done more for the kids, that I could have put more effort into my own friendships with the staff. I planned to come back the next summer to right those wrongs.

In the meantime, I began my life at Swarthmore. From the moment I stepped on campus, I loved it. I had a really amazing first year. As is often advertised about the first year of college, I learned a lot about myself. I also learned about other things: about racism, sexism, and classism; about friendship and support; about kindness and the warmth of relative strangers waving hello on the Beach. Thanks to the wonderfully open-armed and actively lovely students and faculty that populate Swarthmore’s campus, I ended my freshman year feeling incredible. I have never felt more capable, intelligent, or socially adept than I did at the tail end of that spring. I couldn’t wait to go back to camp for my second summer on staff, armed with both the lessons learned from the summer prior and with my newfound self-confidence.

But when I got to camp, I stumbled. Relative to how I’d remembered them, the people who I’d gone to camp alongside all these years seemed standoffish and cliquey. Our passing pleasantries felt less pleasant. In group conversations I felt like an intruder. I thought for a while that I was projecting my own leftover social anxieties onto my co-staff members, imagining a hierarchy where there was none, until a counselor had the gall to say in my presence that my best friend on staff was “irrelevant.” Counselors hosted parties that I wasn’t invited to, and talked about the guest list in front of me. They would intentionally exclude me from programming. Was I so oblivious to this dynamic the year before? How had I managed to mistake this exclusivity for camaraderie? For community? I’d never been actively bothered by my social standing, but this summer I found myself hyperaware. I felt embarrassed by my unshaven armpits, uncomfortable with my own sense of humor, nervous about whether my co-counselors were interested in what I had to say.

For many campers and counselors, both new and returning, camp still feels idyllic. Most everyone there feels welcomed and included, but I think I understand now that that’s because the Weird Kids stop coming back, or don’t come at all. Because Capital Camps self-selects for a demographic of white, Jewish, upper middle-class kids from the DC area, talk of difference and how to encourage, accommodate, and celebrate a diversity of interests and identities arises infrequently, if at all. Somehow I had missed it before, but it is very hard to be weird at Capital Camps.

I realize that a year into my Swat career I’m supposed to be jaded with the administration and frustrated with Sharples and very stressed out, but (mostly) I’m not. After a summer of disillusionment with a place I once called home, I am just grateful for the incredibly smart, thoughtful, and receptive community that populates my newest residence. I know that this school is nowhere near perfect when it comes to inclusivity, but I feel blessed to be a member of a student body that recognizes this deficiency and challenges one another to do better. Happily, I am part of the Weird Kid Cabin that is Swarthmore College. Here, for what it’s worth, I’m not ashamed of my Rubik’s cubes and armpit hair.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks so much for writing this!

    You articulated so well about why I love Swarthmore’s community so much. After going to Swat, suddenly you can sense the invisible yet palpable social shackles where one isn’t free to be themselves. Swat accepts, perhaps even encourages weirdness unlike anywhere else I’ve known.

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