By: Dylan Kornberg
I’d like to take you back, if you’ll join me, to around mid-July of 2009, on Lake Sebago in Southern Maine. I was sixteen years old, and was about halfway through my third summer at Camp O-AT-KA, working as a Counselor-in-Training (CIT). CIT’s are something in between campers and counselors; to clarify, they are in every way campers, they are not on staff and cannot look after campers on their own, but they take on some of the responsibilities of staff and learn the ropes as it were when it comes to what it takes to be a summer camp counselor. It is also, unlike my first two years at camp, an 8-week long experience, whereas previously I had only stayed for a month or so. This can be a somewhat jarring experience for young teenagers, but I had begun to get used to being away from home for a long stretch of time.
It had been a rough few years. The transition from middle school to high school is often difficult, and to be honest, middle school had been no better. I was overweight, near-sighted, and not athletic (correction: I am overweight, near-sighted, and not athletic), growing up in a town that prized its sports teams practically above all else. I was lonely, largely friendless, and adrift in a town that should have felt like home to me but never had. I was, in a word, miserable.
O-AT-KA had become something of a refuge for me. I was still painfully shy, but camp had become a place where I could come out of my shell a bit, if for only moments at a time. I was still clumsy on the ball field and still often preferred being alone reading than running around and playing, but I felt much less ashamed about these personal attributes. Nevertheless, I was still relatively new at camp and so had not yet formed strong bonds with any of the people there.
This summer was different. Famously in the world of O-AT-KA, CITs often become incredibly close with each other, and my summer as a CIT could serve as the benchmark for this famous closeness. This is because of the perfect balance of togetherness and apartness that O-AT-KA builds among its CITs. They are kept somewhat separate from the other campers and also from most of the staff as well (save of course for the CIT Program Directors), and thus they spend nearly all of their time with one another. My CIT class spent all of our time together playing, doing work projects, and preparing evening activities for the rest of camp; even in our downtime we were inseparable. I am an only child, and so have never known the bond that can be formed with siblings, yet I have never felt so close with a group of people my age, nor do I feel I will ever be that close again, than I did with my fellow CITs.
Yet this bond of brotherhood I kindled, important though it is, is not the story I want to tell you today. I want to tell you about a specific evening about halfway through the summer that changed my life. It was our mid-summer review, a time where we could both evaluate our own progress in the CIT program and also reflect on how well the program was working for us. We were given the night off so we could fill out a review sheet and be interviewed individually by the Program Directors. Being sixteen-year-olds, most of us filled out our little sheets in just a few minutes so we could enjoy the rest of our precious night off, but I spent nearly forty-five minutes carefully considering each category presented and rating myself on a scale of one to five.
Finally, it was my turn to be interviewed. I was a bit nervous, but believed I had been as honest with myself as I could have been and did not feel I really had anything to worry about. I went in and gave my sheet to the Director of the Program, who sat next to the Assistant Director. The Assistant Director was only eighteen himself, so pretty close to myself in age, while the Program Director was in his early thirties. I had known the Director for the entire time I had been at camp; he not only ran the rifle program that was the one real sport I did at camp, but moreover he was a quiet and introverted person very similar to myself. I looked up to him more so than anyone else at camp, and naturally I hoped that he would approve of my evaluation.
He spent a few seconds glancing over the sheet I had given him, then set it aside and looked me in the eye. He said, and I’m quoting from memory here, “Dylan, you should have given yourself a five out of five in all categories. You are great with the staff, the campers, and the other CITs. You are a model for everyone else to look up to, and I believe you are going to make a fantastic counselor.” With that, the meeting was over.
I feel no shame in telling you that after that meeting I went into the nearest bathroom and wept for a good five or ten minutes. Never in my life had I ever felt such a sense of validation. My entire life I had viewed myself as a weak, purposeless, useless person, without friends and without meaning in life. Now, for the first time in my life I felt strong, I felt I had a purpose, I felt useful; in short, I felt self-worth. This is such a powerful feeling for a young person to have, that I truly believe it can make someone capable of anything. And indeed, I believe that every accomplishment I have achieved after that meeting is directly attributable to that moment of self-worth I felt then.
I often tell people that the best decision I ever made in my life was going to camp as a Counselor-in-Training in 2009, but in truth had I not gone to camp in the first place as a lonely, scared, friendless fourteen-year-old two years earlier in 2007, I probably never would have become a CIT. So really, it was that first decision, in many ways that much braver decision to go away to a place I had never been before where I did not know anyone, that was the more important one. Whichever way you look at it though, that summer was the most life-changing experience I ever had. I am still an introvert, still quiet and prone to solitude from time to time, but that lonely, self-hating boy who went into that summer returned as a self-confident young man. The effects of that transformation on me are too numerous to calculate.
I am not here to tell you that summer camp is a panacea for all the problems a young boy might have; much as I’d like to believe it is, it is not. Camp is not a place where all life’s problems are solved, nor even where one is given the tools to conquer all that life throws at you. What camp is, and what O-AT-KA is, is a place where children can learn what it means to grow up. It’s a place where you can learn responsibility, independence, and above all self-worth, all while having the time of your life. O-AT-KA has a motto, a quote from its founder the Reverend E.J. Dennen: “it is better to build boys than to mend men.” Perhaps the first thing I learned after that moment of self-worth I achieved as a CIT was the true meaning of that phrase. I shudder to think at the years of therapy it would have taken me as an adult to learn that simple lesson I learned as a sixteen-year-old: that I am important and that I matter. To learn such a lesson as a young person opens up so many opportunities for you as an adult; to learn so while having fun at the same time is something that is only possible at summer camp. And for me, it was something that was only possible at Camp O-AT-KA.
If you are thinking of sending your son to camp, or if you are thinking you yourself would like to go to camp, I would like to recommend to you Camp O-AT-KA. I can tell you, from personal experience, that it is a place where dreams can come true.
Dylan Kornberg is a former counselor and CIT Program Director of Camp O-AT-KA. He went to camp for nine summers, three summers as a camper and six summers as a staff member. He now lives in New York City with his girlfriend and their dog.