Summer Camp Kids Write Home

When it comes to chatting with the world outside the woods of Camp Netimus, the girls here go a little crazy with their fonts.
Forget plain old 12-point black Helvetica. Bubbly, heart-dotted letters in shimmery orange or shiny purple reign queen. And banish the image of a simple white screen on which to write. Netimus girls reach for neon green sheets or cards imprinted with cheetah spots and glitter-showered pink flip-flops.
At this 80-year-old traditional residential camp for girls in the 
Pocono Mountains, and at thousands more around the USA, connecting with Mom and Dad requires licks — of stamps and envelopes — not clicks. The medium for talking to Muddah and Fadduh is a message from the past.
The hand-scribbled, shoebox-worthy letter may seem as anachronistic as archery and A/C-free living, but at sleepaway camp, where directors have largely succeeded in keeping two-way texting and e-mail at bay, it thrives.
The practice of putting colored pencil to notebook paper is "old-fashioned," says Ruby Auman, 11, swinging her legs from her blond wood bunk, where her wall is papered with an ink-printed "of course I'm thinking of you" reply from her mom 2½ hours away in Lewisburg, Pa. "But it's not old-fashioned while you're here."

Camp is not just about fun

One reason for swapping a life of zip files for one of ziplines is to practice face-to-face — and pen-to-pen — communication, says Darlene Calton, a Netimus director (and alumna). "There are so many little life lessons you get at camp that are not necessarily learning how to climb on the ropes course. It's about writing letters home and solving problems by yourself" — instead of texting or calling parents and friends every five minutes to seek advice or to vent.
During a Netimus camper's two- to seven-week stay, directors encourage at least one letter home a week, though more prolific girls might write three a day. Cellphones are considered contraband; if one creeps in, it gets a vacation in the camp office. And computers are as exotic as boys.
Indeed, directors say that one of the benefits of allowing the 
U.S. Postal Service, as opposed to Google Mail, to act as messenger is that by the time Sally's letter detailing her fight with cabinmate Susie has snaked its way home from the country, the row has been long resolved.
In his research for Camp Camp: Where 
Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies, a scrapbook of '70s and '80s camp life, author (and onetime Maine camp counselor) Roger Bennett found that through letter writing, "parents could be present and could assuage their concerns, but not so present that they prevented the incredible freedom that camp offered." Thanks to the time-space continuum of snail mail, "they knew what was going on, but could do nothing to prevent it."
"That," he adds, "is a tradition that needs to be preserved."
At the Postal Service, where mail volume has declined dramatically — more that 20% in the past two years — the fact that a generation accustomed to the instant feedback of the Internet is slowing down to pick up a pencil is heartening, says spokesman Mark Saunders. "When you think about summer camp and you think about pitching a tent or living in a cabin, it's just a natural fit. You're exposing children to a means of communication" that's likely foreign to them.
"As technology increases, the call to get back to the basics is more important than ever," says Marla Coleman, former president of the American Camp Association. In a 2007 survey of the nation's 3,000 ACA-accredited camps, three-quarters said e-mail, cellphones and computers were verboten.
"Camp is a place for kids to practice growing up, and when they become adults, they will need to string together more than 140 characters," Coleman says, alluding to 
Twitter's character limit. With basic letter-writing techniques shoved further down school curricula, "where else are they learning to address an envelope? If camp is this expanded learning environment, letter writing is the touchstone of that learning experience."
As proper salutations and closings become less of a priority in classrooms, "it's superb," says Carol Jago, president of the National Council of Teachers of English, that camps might be the last bastion of the form. "Children need an authentic purpose for writing a letter," Jago says. "If the purpose is to get away from the world a little bit at camp, to get away from video games a little bit, then pick up a pencil and let's do it the long way, let's do it the slow way. I think it would be sad to lose that."

A venerable tradition

The survival of the stamped camp letter, a tradition that dates back to the dawn of camps during the late 19th century, "makes perfect sense" to Leslie Paris, an associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia and the author of Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp. As part of her research, Paris dug up a 1919 mom-directed missive from one Floyd Frost at Camp Riverdale in the Adirondacks: "This is letter-writing period and we all have to write home, so here goes."
"Camps have always been institutions that were at once very modern, reflecting new ideas about the preciousness of childhood on the one hand," Paris says, "and on the other hand, places that privileged a kind of nostalgic look at the American past."
And today, what's more a totem of America's analog past than the letter?
The pile of envelopes in the "Property of 
USPS"-stamped cardboard box in Netimus' white clapboard office seem as much of a relic as the 1969 "Debby Sharp was here" graffiti scrawled in cabin No. 7. Slid through the office's shin-high metal mail slot, they're creased and lumpy, as though they've been stuffed in a trunk for a while. Addresses are jumbled — the ZIP code, if it's there, heralding the town name, the town wedged on one long line between the street and the state — and they're inscribed, in wobbly script, where the return address goes.
(Ruby keeps a couple sample addressed envelopes taped to her cabin wall as guides. At Camp Kupugani in Leaf River, Ill., each cabin gets a laminated cheat sheet that diagrams correct envelope-addressing form.)
Stamps — dogs and cats and Simpsons characters — are rotated 90 degrees. Last names are missing.
The campers' attempts at engaging in an activity that to them is more novelty than necessity are "so funny," Calton says. " 'Grandma,' that's all it says on the envelope. Or 'Grandma, Rye, N.Y.' It's like, 'OK, who lives in Rye?' "
Inside, the letters are rife with tweenspeak and problematic punctuation, just like in texts, instant messages and e-mails. But how many IMs come attached with pink puffy heart stickers emblazoned "I love U!" in shaky black block print?
Ruby's latest letter asks "if you could have the A/C on when I get home because I'm looking forward to the cold air. Also I'm gonna need some more hair stuff." Hannah Goldman's most recent postcard to her cousins in Wayne, Pa., wonders, "How are you. Great. I miss you. Have a great summer. Please write back."
Hannah, 10, finds the writing process, typically conducted during rest hour in her cabin atop a clipboard or book or against the wall, "sort of peaceful." She has written "like 20" in four weeks. Ruby's cabin B4 friend Sarah O'Connell, who's used to picking up her cellphone to talk to her parents, says picking up a pencil was hard at first.
"I didn't know what to do," says Sarah, 11, who's from Pennington, N.J. "I would write it, 'Dear Mom and Dad,' and then I'd write it all scribbly."
But she has since become a fan. "You feel more connected" to your family, Sarah says. As compared with e-mails — which Netimus, like a lot of camps, allow parents to send but not receive — letters are "more sincere," volunteers 11-year-old Remi Riordan, who's from A4 next door (and Montclair, N.J.). "It feels like it's really for you," vs. "there's a subject line and your name."
Sitting on her lower bunk a few screen doors down, amid tie-dyed laundry bags and Justin Bieber-emblazoned teen magazines, Hallie Cain, 11, of McLean, Va., is diligently working on a birthday card for her mom.
Gabby Birenbaum, the cabin's de facto philosopher on the compulsory epistle, is holding her 10th letter in two weeks, destined for her grandparents in West Bloomfield, Mich.
Does the exercise feel like something her parents did? "Like what my grandparents did," says Gabby, 11, who's from Arlington, Va.
"Camp is an opportunity to unplug and develop authentic relationships," Coleman says. "There really is no substitute for Mom or Dad's handwriting on a letter, the smell of Mom's perfume, the clipping dad has enclosed of a box score. You really can't replace that with technology."
And the thrill of the tangible goes both ways. For 11 months of the year, Amy Levine never ventures to her mailbox in Loveland, Colo., precisely when the postman arrives. But for the four weeks her daughters Lindsey, 11, and Josie, 7, were at Blue Star Camps in Hendersonville, N.C., this summer, she would run out to wait for him.
At the scheduled mail-drop time, "my husband instant-messages me, asking if we got any letters," says Levine, 41, a childhood camper turned Web developer who does let technology creep into her ritual: She quickly scans the girls' letters and e-mails them to her husband at work.
"Once you get that first happy letter, it's OK," Levine says.

Olivia Barker, USA TODAY
Read 894 times Last modified on Sunday, 13 March 2016 12:21


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