Trying to Engineer Your Child's Perfect Summer
here's nothing like a kid to make you lose all your common sense and fall into the quagmire of obsession. You swear you won't; you claim you don't. You're too hip for that. Well, if you really believe that, you just haven't gotten a good look at yourself is all. I've seen myself in action too many times to play the denial game anymore. My most recent plunge into parental hysteria was when it came time to find a camp for my 5-year-old.
Ellie had been to a summer program last year, but that was an extension of her nursery school--basically a no-brainer for us. This time, as a preschooler and bona fide member of the Baltimore City Public School System, there was more riding on the camp thing. After a year of sitting in a classroom at a desk listening to teachers and hours spent in a cafeteria during her after-school program, I had a grand vision of duffel bags, fields of flowers, sunshine, ghost stories around the campfire, ponies, arts and crafts. I owed this girl, whose front yard is a dog-shit-filled tree well that we foolishly insist is a flower bed, a rustic summer-camp experience.
With my goal etched firmly in mind, we headed one chilly March day to a camp fair put on by Baltimore's Child magazine. We became a family of conventioneers, burrowing through tables and tables of camps on display--summer folded in a brochure. Representatives went all carny on us, hawking science camp for boys in Pennsylvania; tae kwon do camp in Glen Burnie; horseback riding at McDonogh School; videomaking at Park School; throwing pots at Baltimore Clayworks; Native American dance at Camp Puh'Toc in Monkton. The images compounded wildly as we jostled with parents to get face time with directors. How much does it cost? Can we do partial days? How come you don't send a bus into the city? Look at the old man coming at us with a tennis racket, giving away free lessons.
That night, with our required reading piled on the kitchen table, my wife and I pieced together all the summer possibilities. And it wasn't just picking one camp out of the multitudes; after some phone calls to über-parent friends, we discovered you could mix and match: a sports camp for two weeks, a little horseback riding the next, followed by art camp. What started out as joyful expectations of an ideal summer for our daughter turned into a major decision reverberating with lifelong ramifications. We had the power to design her summer the way parents will undoubtedly be checking off gene strands for their offspring in the not too distant future.
Should we immerse Ellie in nature? She loves bugs, but she freaks on butterflies. She loves to draw, so the girl's got to have art. But too much of a good thing could ruin her. Sports? She likes running down the sidewalks, that's for sure, but competition--the pressure and winning and losing--makes her crazy. And what if the camp with colorful murals is secretly boot camp? Get a grip, man, it's just camp. But that's what this parent thing does to you. The choices, followed by the real and imagined results, hit you like gamma rays.
But camp is a pretty big deal. I mean, if I am lucky enough to get old, really old, and putz around with half a memory, there's a good chance I'll be daydreaming about those days of picking blackberries after a bone-chilling swim under the gazebo guarded by faux Roman statues at my old camp. Those memories are like forgotten ice cream found in the freezer.
Camp is a state of mind, a specific place guaranteed to serve up memories both to cherish and endure. Good memories like joy-riding with derelict counselors, stealing corn from a farmer's field and eating the cob raw in the car, or forsaking baseball and playing a mammoth game of capture the flag and outrunning everyone--what I'd give to play one more game. Bad memories like getting bit on the ass by a German shepherd while trespassing on someone's yard to play capture the flag, or getting caught by the fencing coach swashbuckling with a foil, being put in a corner during practice, getting videotaped, and then having footage shown to the class afterward.
The first half of our decision was relatively easy. We managed to get Ellie into a summer arts afternoon program at the Creative Alliance. Free is a good thing, and considering the girl's hands are covered with markers by dinner time, arty afternoons in July are a good bet. Still, our goal was to get out of East Baltimore, which seems like the hottest place on earth when you're bound by stubby rowhouses on each side, grilling under the sun. We made phone calls to camp directors, compared notes with friends and parents--strangers with kids, really, whom we happened upon during walks in the park. Everyone had their little camp odysseys going on.
We requested tours, straining to picture summer on chilly March mornings. We hit Beth Tfiloh out in Reisterstown, a camp that I attended at Ellie's age. The biggest memory I had was tripping on my shoelaces while racing to the water fountain and cutting myself on a piece of glass. I proudly displayed the scar on my wrist to the camp director. Despite selling off a lot of its land, now an industrial park on a hill, Beth Tfiloh is still rustic, down to its un-air-conditioned bunkhouse. Ellie likes her comforts, so we moved on.
We found ourselves on the opposite end of the spectrum on the manicured campus of Notre Dame. Kids there do everything indoors, from swimming twice a day to romps in the gymnasium to playing board games in the cafeteria. Weather permitting, they eat outside on the rolling campus of pines and playing fields. "You know the climate around here during the summer is really oppressive," our guide said. Images of confronting a pasty Ellie at the summer's end kept us looking.
On the next weary stop, Ellie and I found ourselves out on the North Baltimore campus of Boys' Latin. Man, they sure like lacrosse over there on Lake Avenue. I was mulling over the perplexing fact that they only swim twice a week--swimming is summer, summer is swimming--and Ellie took off down a trail. The trail led to a playground clamoring with kids. She climbed a wooden boat and made best friends with some strangers she found on the way. She doesn't care about activities. She's just thrilled that the boat has a trapdoor that leads to room of portholes, somewhere she could duck down and spy. All it took was a "Come on, Daddy," and I was on the playground with her. Dinner would have to wait.
Shoot, there's no way to program summer. A day later we signed up for a camp program offered at Friends School, and did so without a tour. It is structured and features daily swimming, but seems loose enough to allow fun to take over. The folks there have a love for the outdoors but also central air.
I had relaxed my grip on the parental control system after a few hours spent in Patterson Park after school. I came there aiming to kick a soccer ball around with my daughter, to build up her confidence and perhaps cut down on her propensity to fling herself down in frustration during soccer clinics. But those big plans were scuttled when she and her sister, Lilah, squatted down in a fallow Patterson Park field to build ant houses out of stems and dandelions. Try as I may, I will never again be able to recapture such grass-stained improvisation (there weren't even any ants around), so why sweat it. Summer is her specialty. All I need to do give her the space, and she'll fill in the rest herself.
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