The Fundamentals: Thoughts on Camp and America

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By Adam Zemel

To my old campers:

Most of you are old enough to vote now. The youngest of you are in your final year of high school. Soon we’ll all be out here in the world together. Citizens. When I look around at this country, I fill with this growly feeling that this — this, right here, where we are right now, whatever happens next — this is what our time together at camp was actually about.

My message for you, I think, when I was a counselor and especially when I was a unit head, was that your time at camp matters, that you are the ones who are going to decide how it matters and what it means, and that you have a responsibility to each other. To me, those are the fundamentals of camp. You have a stake in it. And that should make you care, it should make you want to take a stand. It should empower you.

Every summer we built a world together. The world we were building was small. It was brief. And it was immediate — we acted and the world moved. It’s easy, at camp, to see your impact reverberate out around you: you determine if our community is one where everyone belongs or people are left behind; you determine if the fling works for the summer or if you’ve been falling slowly in love; you determine, while paddling down the Lehigh River in monsoon-like conditions, whether it’s the best or worst day of the summer. Friendships, bunks, the entire unit changed and affected by your words and actions — the effects were clear, palpable, direct. It is very different from trying to measure your impact on the country. It is very different from trying to influence the whole wide world.

But it also isn’t, because the fundamentals do not change.

Back at camp, whenever I could — and especially about the important stuff — I tried to be honest with you, and right now I think th
is is the best case I can honestly make for the United States: the country where we live is a place of amazing progress and heart-breaking moral failure, with potential for so much more in both directions. America is vast and full and fundamentally contradictory. Whatever it is about the world that causes language to fashion “terrific” and “terrible” — or “awesome” and “awful” — from a shared root word, that same thing is what’s at the core of this country. It’s beautiful and it sucks, and that’s the best case I can honestly make.

It’s no longer my role to tell you what to stand for or how to care. If I were still your counselor, and I felt like you were listening — maybe if we were all sitting around a campfire or if I’d just interrupted your friend group because I saw you all making jokes in the shade and we drifted into a more thoughtful conversation — I’d tell you what I think you should stand for. Why I hope you care. What I want it to mean. But that’s in the past, we’re all adults now, and I trust you.

Instead, I’m just reminding you about the fundamentals. The fundamentals have not changed. You have power. You have responsibility. You play a part in deciding what matters and what it means.

So much about this country as it functions today seems designed to make you feel helpless. Things are what they are. We are just individuals and the system is the system. So many of the decisions made and policies adopted in this country can be traced back to motivations rooted in greed and intolerance. We are living in a country where people struggle and suffer because of systems that we did not build and decisions that we did not make. I’m not going to itemize a whole list for you — in any case, I know that my parents’ diagnosis of these problems is different than your parents’ is different than my diagnosis is different than yours. Every generation comes to its own understanding of how to relate to this terrible, awesome, awful, and terrific place. But I do know that we all have to make the choice, over and over again, whether to embrace the fundamentals or reject them, whether to have faith in a future that we can help to shape or to give up on it. But please, please don’t give up on it. That’s not what we do.

Instead, take a beat and think about camp: Those nights where it felt like twilight might last for hours. Those moments of cheek-burning laughter. That feeling when you saw your friends again in the bunk at Shower Hour after an afternoon apart. Hold all that inside your chest and feel powerful.

And then: throw your shoulder against the weight of the world and push.

Adam Zemel was a camper, counselor and unit head at Harlam from 1998-2018.