Friday, August 5, 2011

Returning to My Roots

Last week, I returned to Camp Negev (not its real name), the secular Jewish summer overnight camp that I went to from 1995-1998. It was their second annual Alumni Day, in which Negev campers from years past could return and reunite with friends for a few hours.

Nobody from my age group showed up. In fact, I think a total of two campers from the 1990s, besides me, who showed up, and I wasn't close with either of them (we were positive acquaintances, I'd say). But that's okay. It was still good to see them. It was just good to see familiar-- and not so familiar-- Negev faces. To understand why I was okay with showing up and not reuniting with anybody I had ever been close to, one has to understand my experience at Camp Negev and what a unique place it was.

Camp Negev changed my life. I was a few months shy of 15 when I started attending in the summer of '95. I had never been to overnight camp before, and all life had taught me (mostly in school) was that I could expect interaction with my peers to be one humiliation after another. I expected that to happen at Negev. I expected the girls to put on makeup and talk nonstop about Cute Boys and make fun of me. If I expected this, why did I go to Negev? Because my older brother had gone (from '91-'93) and loved it. I had outgrown my day camp and was too old to return as a camper. 

When I first came to Negev, I was paranoid. I was scared that the slightest infringement on my part would invite humiliation. I remember being terrified when I randomly announced one day that the year was exactly half over to everybody in my cabin; they responded by giggling. I see in retrospect that they giggled because it was such a random comment. They probably forgot about it five minutes later and it never came up again. At school, a comment like that generally invited months of humiliation and became something of which I would never hear the end. I cried nearly every day for the first couple weeks at camp out of stress of trying to navigate the social world. Finally, in the middle of the third week of camp, one of my counselors, Jonas (not his real name) reached out to me and became my friend and mentor. He helped me to relax and make friends. Within three days or so of beginning to get to know him, I begged my parents to let me stay second session-- and they did. And the other kids in my group were happy about this. This kind of reaction was new to me. 

I stayed all 7 weeks in the summer of '95 and, at the time, it was the best summer of my life. Jonas helped me through high school, emotionally (despite living hundreds of miles away). I haven't seen him in about 10 years and we don't talk much anymore, but I know I will always love and respect him for what he did. I don't know who I would be today if not for him. Needless to say, I did return in the summer of 1996 (which was the best summer of my life. Period.), went on the camp's Israel trip in 1997, and came back as a C.I.T. in 1998. What I found to be unique about Negev was how interesting the people were to talk to even if I barely knew them. Most of them were intelligent and had something interesting to say. Some of my fondest memories include the deep discussions-- that sometimes lasted until 3 AM-- with people, some with whom I was close, and some with whom I barely knew. It was just that kind of place. In fact, it's really the first time I can recall actually engaging in a true conversation with anyone outside of my family! Plus, its small environment (usually about 150 campers) made it more comfortable for me. Did I have social problems there? Sure, but so does every Aspie, no matter how comfortable the environment (and this was the first place I truly felt comfortable). I can tell you right now, however, that my social skills improved dramatically from going to Negev. 

So back to the reunion. Yes, last Sunday I went to the Alumni Day. I enjoyed just watching the kids experience the absolute freedom that camp offered, the acceptance of differences in place where there is a strong emphasis on social justice. I talked to some of the counselors, who seemed interesting. I even found out there are some kids with Asperger's syndrome, and education about AS was delivered to the counselors during orientation. 

So that was Negev. My roots. To which I returned for a few short hours.

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