Dispatches | November 11, 2010

Last summer, I worked at a sleepaway camp on the Pennsylvania/New York border called Tyler Hill.  I had based my expectations off of a camp I went to in Indiana when I was in 7th grade.  There, we spent most of our time playing capture the flag, eating on the waterfront, or just having time to relax.  Figuring this is what all camps were like, I figured it would be, in my own twenty-year-old terms, a rather chill summer.
When I was in elementary school and junior high (until grade eight), I loved reading.  I would read everything I could get my hands on; my favorites were Brian Jacques, Gordon Korman, and, of course, Bill Watterson.  The desire started to falter once I hit high school and college, partly due to workload, but mostly due to a shortened attention span.  I figured camp would be the perfect place to get some reading done.  When I arrived last summer, I was in the process of reading two books: Blue Highways, by William Least-Heat Moon, and Nothing to Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes.

Blue Highways was written by a former University of Missouri professor, and my grandmother had bought it for me the previous Christmas.  Each chapter averaged about a page in length, so my short attention span was satiated.  Blue Highways is about William Least-Heat Moon’s drive cross-country in the seventies, only using back roads (the ones marked in blue on old maps).  I loved Least-Heat Moon’s conversational, yet flourished, tone.  Every sentence was so delicately crafted, it seemed like I was traveling through the back roads of America with him.  My favorite part of the book is when Moon described his “calendar theory” when dealing with diners.  The more calendars a diner has on the wall, the better your experience will be.  Four calendars is the best he’s ever seen.

Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a memoir about coping with death.  My sister bought it for me after reading the first sentence, which she thought was perfect for me: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”  Barnes goes on to say that his Philosophy professor brother thought that sentence was juvenile, and continues on to talk about the different ways that he and his brother dealt with the death of their parents.  I’ve only made it a couple of chapters through this book, attributing it to the workload accompanying junior year of college.

When the kids arrived to camp in mid-June, my life exploded into a chaos I hadn’t yet known.  We, the counselors, unpacked their duffel bags for them, and I was appalled to find only one book total in all seven of the kids’ bags.  When I handed it to Jake, he looked at it, then up at me as if to say, “What do I do with this?” and threw it in the trash.  Every night before going to bed, they’d play handheld videogames, staring blankly at the screens.  All of the experiences in my first week would lead to a frantic call with my mom, a children’s librarian.

“Mom!  These kids… they don’t read!”

After she calmed me down, I finally asked her to send me a book that I had loved as a kid, Gordon Korman’s Toilet Paper Tigers.  I figured it would be perfect for these eleven and twelve year-olds.  Even though I had read it when I was nine, I had low expectations of their comprehension.  When writing letters home, one camper asked me how to spell his mom’s name (Karen) and another asked me how to spell ‘guess’.  I decided to start them out slow with a book about the only thing I knew they liked more than videogames: baseball.

Toilet Paper Tigers is your usual misfit sports team story.  The last nine kids left in the Little League Baseball draft all end up on the same team, due to their quantum physicist coach not showing up.  The coach’s granddaughter shows up and ends up shaping the team up into legitimate contenders, taking us chapter-by-chapter through the team.  There was one chapter for every member of the team, and one for the coach.  This meant that it would only take ten nights for me to finish reading the book to the campers.  When I was nine, the book helped teach me about the existence of leptons and piqued my interest in reading.  I never thought it’d be helping me to grab the attention of some kids ten years later.  The night the book came, nervousness overtook me.

“Everyone put away your electronics.  I’m going to read you a chapter from this book tonight.  If you don’t like it, we’ll never have to read it again.”

There were some confused looks pointed in my direction as they all powered down, but I was surprised at how little they complained.  “Ahem – Chapter One…”

After I finished the chapter, I shut off the light and walked out onto the porch to read Blue Highways to myself.  The next night as the kids settled into bed, I was preparing to go to the porch and read when Jake piped up, “Aren’t you going to read to us?”  I didn’t even bother to hide the grin that spread itself on my face.

“Sure,” I said, putting away my own book.

I eventually finished Blue Highways (mostly thanks to a five-day bout of stomach flu that left me quarantined in the infirmary) and finished reading Toilet Paper Tigers to the kids as well.  While I was sick for the five days, they even asked another counselor to read them a chapter one night.  After the book was over, every night I was on duty they would ask me to tell them stories.  Granted, I would tell them stories while they played videogames, but I took it as progress.

Now that I’ve sent in my contract and am officially returning to Tyler Hill for a second summer, I’m scrambling to find two books to read.  Hopefully I’ll be done with Nothing to Be Frightened Of by the end of winter, with a twenty-hour car ride to Vermont looming in front of me.  So, if you have any suggestions of books you liked to read when you were twelve or twenty, please let me know.