Sarah Van Boven

Much like the universe, summer camp is always teetering precariously on the knife’s edge between order and chaos. Appropriately enough, this is nowhere more evident than in the dining room. There are two weeks left in this session, and I am struggling to maintain a veneer of etiquette at a table of eight girls who–despite elevated socioeconomic status and some of the best elementary educations money can buy–resemble desperate refugees awaiting an overdue aid shipment when turned loose on a platter of chicken drumsticks. During the 50 minutes of dinner on Sunday, I found myself saying each of the following phrases at least once:

1. “Baked potatoes with butter are not finger food.”

2. “Please sit on the bench with both feet on the floor. Very funny–on the floor in front of you.”

3. “There is really no need to stand up when passing bowls of food”

4. “No talking between tables, please”

5. “No exaggerated silent pantomime of talking between tables, please.”

6. “I’m sorry you forgot that you are ‘allergic’ to chicken, but once it’s in your mouth you do have to swallow it.”

Because of commands like these, and despite my belief that rules exist for reasons other than the suppression of all that is fun in the world, I am often referred to as a Mean Counselor–though certain allowances are made for my extremely advanced age of 26. (I returned this year to the New Hampshire girls’ camp where I summered as a child and young adult to rest up before departing for an editing job overseas. I utterly forgot how exhausting it can be to be a camp counselor, but it’s not a bad place to hang around waiting for a Vietnamese work visa.) At my table this week, we have already had several discussions of my decrepitude. A 10-year-old named Casey guessed that I was 45, and all expressed unanimous amazement that Hannah, the other counselor sitting at our table, was once a camper in my cabin way back in the early ‘90s. Despite Hannah’s testimony that I was indeed this “mean” in the olden days, it has been decided that much of my strict demeanor springs from many years of living in New York City. I can’t help but laugh when Brianna, a brassy little blonde in pigtails, responds to my request that she please go get more French bread with, “You can’t just order me around. I’m not a cab driver.”

If my friends back in Manhattan could see me now, I think they could get over my regulation forest-green uniform, my unwashed hair (yes, there’s a drought up this far north, too), and the ballpoint-pen tattoo inked onto my ankle by a bored camper. The irreconcilable cognitive dissonance would probably come when they saw me joining in the songs in the dining hall.

Here at camp we start off each meal by singing grace. Loud. The senior campers (ages 13, 14, and 15) then have the privilege of starting a variety of raucous songs that are inevitably sung in various simultaneous pitches. The juniors, ages 7 to 12, join in and spend what little downtime there is in between songs engaged in more exaggerated silent pantomime, hoping (usually in vain) that someone on the senior side of the dining room will take pity on them and start the tune of their choice. Should a counselor need to cut into the din, the entire room breaks into one of several vaguely insubordinate announcement songs, e.g. “Announcements, announcements/We sold our cow/Don’t want your bull/Announcements, announcements.”

Everyone sings–no exceptions, and the louder the better. For example, the camp has a sizable number of young kids shipped up from Venezuela by their parents to work on their language skills. It never fails to amaze me when I see a little girl who didn’t know the English word for “lake” two weeks ago belting out rapid-fire nonsense songs. Just tonight, a timid, dark-eyed Venezuelan at my table named Ana was able to effortlessly belt out these lines:

The peppiest camp I ever did see
It never goes a’ pokin’
If I could tell you the pep it has
You’d think I was a’ jokin’
It’s not the pep in the pepper pot
Or the pop in the popcorn popper
It’s not the pep in the mustard jar
Or the pep in the vinegar stopper
It’s good old fashioned P-E-P
The kind you can’t knock down
We’re the peppiest camp around.

She was, of course, stuffing buttery baked potato into her mouth with her fingers the entire time, but not even I am mean enough to quash that one.