2016 was my first year at Not Back To School Camp. I didn’t spend much time deciding whether to go, either. In late July my mom found out about the camp and called me over to look at pictures. She asked if it looked interesting. I said yes. A place full of homeschooled kids playing games and making music and talking? Sign me up! Less than a week of researching (mostly deciding what session to go to) later, I was registered for the Vermont 2016 session of NBTSC.
Over the next week or two, we filled out and sent all the forms that were needed and also bought plane tickets and worked out where I was going to stay and how I would travel (which was ridiculously complicated due to the fact that I was 15 and traveling internationally alone, but that’s a story for another time.) In mid September, I flew to Massachusetts, stayed with another camper (who happened to be a friend) for a few days, and then drove to camp with them.
I remember being mildly excited and a tiny bit nervous as we were getting close. My friend was just plain excited, but they had been there before. Looking at it now, I’ll probably mostly feel excitement when I go back! But at that time I wasn’t entirely sure what was coming.
When we drove up to the farmhouse, I remember looking at all the people and wondering who they were. We parked and I sat in the car for a few moments, trying to get up my courage to get out. I’m a shy person. My friend jumped out of the car and ran off. I lost track of them, so I stuck with her mom, who had driven us there. We walked over to a table with a few staff members behind it. I could tell that they were staff because they were wearing camp t-shirts (if any of you are reading this, that was so helpful!) All around me people were greeting each other. They seemed happy, and it was kind of infectious. One person, a staff member, (I don’t remember who because I didn’t know them yet) said hi to me and asked my name, which was nice. It was cool to be included even though I hadn’t been there before and wasn’t sure what I was doing. He said he was looking forward to the workshop I was leading later in the session. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. I was excited that he kind of knew who I was, but the idea that people already knew something about me was slightly intimidating.
The table was the official welcoming table, where each camper, new and old, went by to get a name tag and answer a few questions (mostly about your health and whether you’ve brought any medications to camp that they have to take care of). I could do that just fine, but then I was left at the end entirely unsure what to do. I had been told that I had been assigned to a room inside the farmhouse (instead of the outdoor cabins I had expected and that most people sleep in), but I didn’t know how to get there or anything. If I were a different person I would probably have immediately gone exploring to find out, but instead I retrieved my suitcase from the car and kind of stood by the steps looking around for a while. I hate trying to do things I’m not used to.
Eventually I convinced myself to just go and try to find my room myself. When I got up on the farmhouse porch, a girl with short, curly, periwinkle hair bounced up to me and asked if I was new. I said yes. She asked if I knew where I was going. I said no, but I was pretty sure I was inside. She could work with that, and showed me where the stairs were and offered to carry my suitcase. I told her it was heavy, but agreed. It was such a nice thing to do. I ended up going upstairs with her and one or two other kids who appeared to know each other. To my mild surprise, I didn’t feel particularly left out. Everyone was so immediately welcoming and clearly wanted everyone at camp to be happy.
I located my room and put my bag there. I don’t remember whether I unpacked anything at that point or not. Then I went back downstairs and out onto the farmhouse porch. The porch was full of kids, most of them talking and clearly having a great time. (One of my first memories of that was someone coming around the corner and exclaiming to a friend, “You dyed your hair!”) I looked around until I found my friend’s mom so I could tell her that I had found my room all right. Neither of us knew where my friend was at that point, but her mom said that she was going to the parents’ orientation and would I be okay. I said yes and stood in the middle of the porch kind of looking around and trying to figure out what to do. Around then a couple people came up and started to talk to me. We introduced ourselves and started talking about something that we all knew a lot about – homeschooling! It was a great icebreaker, because it was something we could connect on easily and also something that it’s hard to find people to talk with about at home.
A little aside here – when I go back to camp I plan to make sure to talk to new people. People on the porch coming up and including me in their conversation on the porch helped me get settled so well, and made me feel like a part of the group immediately. Having someone just automatically help me find my room was the same thing, just little kindnesses that made me, someone who is awkward and nervous in new situations, feel so much more comfortable and helped me adjust to camp quicker. I want to do that for others, because I know what it feels like to be left out, even if people aren’t doing it on purpose.
Time passed. The parents and other droppers-off left. Then I got to experience the camp bell for the first time. It’s actually more of a crude marimba type thing that looks a bit like it’s made out of metal railroad ties, but when it’s hit with a hammer it rings and the different lengths of metal make different tones. As I learned later, it’s rung at the change between activities at camp – beginning of meals, check in, project time, advisee time, end of advisee time, etc. This time, the first time it rang at NBTSC Vermont 2016, it meant that we were supposed to go to the field for the welcome circle – the official beginning of camp. At the time I didn’t know that, and the only reason I ended up in the field was because some of my conversation partners told me.
That evening was welcome circle, our first advisee group, and the opening ceremony. In every single activity, I learned more about camp and felt more and more comfortable. By the time we were halfway through advisee time, I truly felt that I had never been so comfortable anywhere but my home with my family. I expected to be comfortable at camp, but I didn’t expect to feel as comfortable as I had ever felt anywhere, and by the first evening. I believe I said as much to the group.
Once I had been at camp for a full day, I felt settled in. I was a little homesick – I hadn’t seen my family in several days – but other than that I was very happy. That’s unusual for me. I’ve moved a lot but I’d never been away from my family before, and I tend to need familiarity to feel at home. But for some reason, camp was the exception. Camp was the exception for a lot of things. Camp is magic.
One of the things that I told myself I would do at camp was try new things. Try things that I wasn’t comfortable with. It was one of the smartest decisions I made regarding camp. The atmosphere of the entire place made trying things easy. Everyone understood that you weren’t perfect, and they supported you if you were nervous. No one would dream of being unkind to someone who messed something up. At camp I tried speaking in front of people. I sang in front of people. I talked to people all the time. I made jokes without worrying about whether people would be amused.
My mantra for the session was “just do it”. By following that plan, I ended up doing things like canoeing across the lake, swimming across a cold, dark area of water (that one was terrifying, but I’m alive), going off a rope swing into said cold, dark area of water, leading a workshop, serving lunch to around fifty people singlehanded, learning to lead in partner dancing, and so much more. Some of those things I might have tried other places, given the chance. I might have skipped a lot of them, too.
Time seems different at camp. No one remembers what day of the week it is. Everything is talked about by days at camp.
“When is your workshop?”
“When was the staff talent show?”
“Really? I thought it was later.”
“What day of the week was swimming?”
It’s amusing. And a bit endearing. I’m guilty of talking about time that way myself. There’s no need to talk about weeks or anything at camp. Camp and everything in it exists in a separate dimension. We’re out in the woods all alone for over a week, just us.
And then, all too fast and yet after seemingly forever, we had to leave. It was sad (yay understatement) but it gave me a chance to look back on what I had done at camp and how amazing it had been. When I arrived I knew no one and nothing. Less than ten days later I knew everyone, some of them relatively well. I knew every rock in the path behind the farmhouse. I knew exactly how many benches I could carry at once without hurting anything.
At the beginning of camp we wrote down things that we wanted to do or parts of ourselves that we wanted to express at camp. We also wrote down things we didn’t want to be a part of our experience. At the end of camp, we got the paper with the things we didn’t want back. Some people said they didn’t want to read it, and I understand. But I read mine. And I realized that all of those things – my homesickness, my shyness, and all the other things that I wrote down – are things that I actually didn’t have a problem with during camp. I don’t know if it was writing them down or if camp just doesn’t lend itself to unhappiness, but I hadn’t allowed those things to cloud what I was doing for the entire eight (and a half? Nine?) days I was there. It made me so happy.
It hadn’t rained pretty much the whole time I was at camp, but it was drizzling the morning of departure. I don’t know if it made it easier or harder to leave, but I do remember thinking how lucky we were that the rain held off until camp was over. People were hugging each other and getting into cars and driving off one by one, and I was torn between being happy to still be with them and sad because soon we wouldn’t be together. I ended up feeling an odd mix.
Eventually I left too. I actually did cry then, but mostly after we had truly left camp behind. I remember being upset that camp was over and missing my family immensely. I still had to travel back home before I was with them. I was going to stay with my friend for a night, then go back to the airport and go home the next day. The time between was the hardest.
I do have one recommendation here. Tempting as it is to stay up extremely late on the last night of camp, I don’t think I’d recommend it. Having experienced plenty of jet lag and overnight plane flights, I’ve always said I don’t understand the allure of staying up all night. Still, I stayed up until after 4 AM, and ended up getting around two hours of sleep. The lack of sleep almost undoubtedly added to the misery I was feeling and amplified it. I’m currently planning on trying to go to sleep at a relatively decent hour next year, and I encourage anyone else out there to do the same.
And then I was gone. I had bought a camp hoodie and t-shirt, which I wore nonstop because they gave some comfort with their definite camp-ness. Getting internet for the first time in over a week was also interesting. I sort of dabbled for a little while, getting used to internet contact again and mostly using it to call my family. One of the things that definitely helped, though, was the fact that I had Facebook friend requests from tons of campers. My camp friends who didn’t have Facebook emailed me soon after. Having any sort of correspondence with the people who I had enjoyed so much was very nice. I could commiserate with them about missing camp and each other, and it helped a lot.
Through all of this, I comforted myself with daydreams of returning. And thoughts of telling my family all of the amazing things I had done. There were plenty of happy things to think about, especially once I had some semblance of normalcy return to my life. The sadness of leaving camp was unpleasant, but well worth the fantastic experiences I had and the friends I made. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I can’t wait for next year.