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Metamorphosis: My First Summer at Camp
When a caterpillar reaches a point of imminent metamorphosis, it enters another world, a fleeting but fundamental microcosm of its everyday life of tree branches and windowpanes. The caterpillar is meek and inexperienced to the sights, sounds, scents, and tastes of life. It is restricted to the narrow confines of its own eyes, having no wings to fly to other destinations and see its peripheral sights in full view. When it enters its chrysalis, it is sequestered in a setting that still encloses it from reality; however, unbeknownst to the caterpillar, this setting is the spring for a new tide of understanding. Paradoxically, it is when the caterpillar is the most removed from the real world that it undergoes the most remarkable growth. After a month-long evolution, the caterpillar emerges as a butterfly, an enlightened form of its past self. True, the metaphorical use of a caterpillar's transformation is clichéd, but this is not a metaphor. I really did live in a Cocoon for a month.
It was with apprehension, even dread, that I approached my first summer at Camp Kamaji, an all-girls camp in northern Minnesota. Despite my dad's romanticized stories about his boyhood camp days, a Kamaji video for prospective campers that promised nothing but fun, and my own futile attempts at self-assurance, I couldn't allay my fears. What if nobody liked me? What if I got made fun of for not knowing how to sweep a cabin or do laundry? I had seen African American girls in the Kamaji video from the previous year, and what if I lived with one of them?
Surely I wouldn't be able to relate. In my hometown of Hudson, Ohio, an affluent suburb where I had lived my whole life, homogeny was the standard, and although I would never admit to having any qualms with other races, I was tentative to live with people who just seemed so different. Moreover, I was worried that I wouldn't be accepted. My best friend in fifth grade was extremely domineering and that combined with the emergence of classroom cliques really lowered my feeling of self-worth. How could I be liked by the fun, exuberant girls in the Kamaji video? They would snub me because I was a picky eater and couldn't braid my own hair; at the very least, my timidity would prevent me from forming any bonds deeper than acquaintanceships.
My worries encumbered me all the way to The Dirt Road, the landmark signifying to returning campers that Kamaji was less than a game of Crazy Eights away. As the veteran campers erupted in cheers of excitement, their infectious laughter temporarily muffled the disquiet in my mind. The bus passed the "Welcome to Camp Kamaji" sign, revealing an idyllic setting beyond a pine tree-lined gravel path. Golden sunlight illuminated the campgrounds like a treasure trove bearing childhood jewels: tetherball courts, emerald-green trees, and throngs of waving counselors. The closest thing to industry was the cylindrical gas tank painted like a pig.
Floating through the sea of elated reunions, I made my way to the lodge, where campers were being directed to find out our cabin placement. I sat on the dusty oak floor with my new friend Becca, a fellow newcomer from Cleveland with whom I engaged in nervous chatter on the bus. A stuffed caribou head mounted on a stone fireplace oversaw the activity, watching its silent winter sanctuary awaken with life. Mike Jay, the camp owner, brought the happy din to a murmur by beginning the announcement of cabin placements.
"…And in the Cabin Cocoon, we have . . . ." Mike rattled off names in his trademark jovial bellow, ". . . and Stefanie Klaus!"
That night, I shuffled my spaghetti around on my plate; it wasn't the way Mommy would have made it. I silently cried myself to sleep the first few nights, deeply inhaling the scent redolent of home on the pillowcase that soaked up my tears. My role in the cabin was that of the sweet, quiet girl, and although everyone liked me, I knew that my cordial façade was a white picket fence, a euphemistic barrier between me and the world.
And then, about a week and a half into the summer, something changed. It was not a marked event that brought on a sudden epiphany, nor was it a conscious process of small steps towards a desired goal. I just came alive. Perhaps it was the nightly Evening Programs, like All-Camp Gladiator Night, Disco Dance Party Night, and Country Club Night (in which the male staff members painted our nails and gave us oatmeal "face masks") that released my inhibitions and allowed me to relish my silliness. Perhaps it was the harmonious laughter of my fellow campers, the exhilaration of learning new skills, and the delectable Toothpaste (mint) Brownies that overpowered my unease. Perhaps it was a seemingly simple compliment, invitation to play, or word of encouragement that subconsciously instilled in me a sense of validity. Perhaps it was my observance of nascent friendships between girls of all different backgrounds, races, and camp experiences.
Whatever it was, something told me that it was okay to be myself, to take risks, and to meet challenges with temerity. As the remaining weeks at Kamaji progressed, I continued to develop within my Cocoon, finding solace in what used to be sources of intimidation. In the initial weeks of the session, I had restrained my offbeat sense of humor for fear of ridicule. By camp's end, I was hosting a nightly "Comedy Hour with Stefanie Klaus" at the relentless requests of my cabinmates, giving a ten-year-old's lampoon of everything from the leeches in the lake to the hot commodity of pocket-sized fans. Whereas at first I was lacking in confidence, I finished camp with a euphoric sense of achievement that only subsequent camp experiences have rivaled. Not only did I conquer the feats of sweeping and bed making, but I also learned how to water ski, sail, windsurf, and myriad other skills that helped shape me into an adventurous and well-rounded individual.
I returned home a virtual fountain of information, eagerly telling my parents about, among other things, how to rig a sailboat, how to tie figure-eight and square knots, and how to tie-dye a T-shirt. Far more significant than my knowledge of pitching a tent, however, was my expanded insight into acceptance and human relationships. Gina and Charity, the two girls from inner-city Chicago who I had immediately judged based on our separate backgrounds, became two of my closest friends. Beyond face value, we shared genuine similarities that far surpassed our differences.
During my initial time home in 1996 and every year thereafter, I desperately wanted to entwine camp within the real world. I wanted to hold onto that place where the most consequential wars were over who got the last Rice Krispies® Treat, and the greatest disappointment of the day was not receiving mail. I wanted to believe that I could carry on that life void of cynicism and superficiality beyond the cozy confines of my cabin. However, it was within a few weeks that I realized my friends at home didn't share my enthusiasm for table-pounding games and camp colloquialisms. They rolled their eyes and didn't understand; they couldn't understand. Despite my valiant attempts to extend my Kamaji persona to home life and bring utopia to suburbia, the two worlds inevitably collided. Kamaji mimics the good of the real world while providing asylum from the bad. Camp both imitates and diverges from life, but perhaps life should imitate camp.
The summer of 1996 ended with poignant goodbyes and wonderful memories. Since then, Camp Kamaji has encapsulated my processes of both realizing youth and growing up. I returned as a camper through the summer of 2000, during which I further honed my water skiing, windsurfing, sailing, and canoeing skills, developed an ever-growing nucleus of friends from across socioeconomic and ethnic spectrums, and earned a role as "the comedian" among those friends. Charity and I maintained a deep bond throughout our years as campers; when it was her fifth year at camp, myself and another close friend presented her with a miniature canoe paddle and a speech about our friendship, a traditional rite of passage for those who reach the half-decade mark. Unfortunately, we have since lost touch, but I know that if we ever reunite, we will share the same uncontrollable giggles that reverberated throughout our cabin and across Big Wolf Lake.
As for myself, I was a counselor in 2001 and 2003, and I will return this June for my eighth summer. As a counselor, Kamaji is a crystallization of my childhood and adulthood. I now have the privilege of watching other young girls during their own metamorphoses. For the life lessons I have reaped from my summers at Camp Kamaji, I am grateful beyond words.
After the butterfly has emerged from its chrysalis, it may glance back to see the shell of its former self, the caterpillar tensed with insecurity as it approached the Cocoon. The butterfly may reminisce of its life as a caterpillar, only able to discern things such as tree branches and windowpanes, thoughts of a world beyond its visual scope unfathomable. It will have some fond memories of its life as a caterpillar, but it will not miss it. Being a butterfly is so much better.
Stefanie Klaus is a former camper and current staff member of Camp Kamaji for Girls.
Originally published in the 2004 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.