Family Life

One Ratty Summer: How a Rodent Taught My Campers Resilience

As a parent, I know how scary it can be (deep breath) to send kids to sleepaway camp for the first time. When I contemplated my daughter, 12-year-old Gracie, going to overnight camp for the first time, I had my own share of brown-bag hyperventilating moments.

One thing that calmed my nerves was remembering some of my own camp experiences, especially the summer I worked as a counselor when I was in college. I learned first-hand how resilient kids are when they’re away from home. That summer, I shared a cabin with a group of middle school girls and a large rat named Lucifer.

Right before campers arrived, the counselors had an inkling we weren’t alone. We found suspicious droppings in our closet and heard something gnawing on our extension cord one night, but we’d never seen the wretched thing. It was on our list to “see a man” about a trap, but we were busy and exhausted. So what happens when you don’t find the culprit before 30 unsuspecting 13-year-old girls descend upon a cabin? You can count on Camp Karma showing up with some major drama. Ours came in the form of every camper shrieking and crying on the front lawn at two in the morning. No longer satisfied with creeping around the counselors’ room, the rat appeared on the shelving near the top of the ceiling in the girls’ room. And this was not a little mouse–“squeak, squeak.” It was a monster rat with a body several inches long followed by a spindly tail. The rat raced around all four corners of the room on the high shelving (probably terrified at that point), allowing every girl there to spy the rodent and be traumatized for what I assumed would be life.

Emotions that run that high are what I call a perfect blend of trauma and drama–“traudrama.” It felt like hours before the campers were calm again.

“He looked right at me with his beady, red eyes,” one hysterical camper told me.

The camp chaplain shared soothing words. The adults dutifully said, “He’s more scared of you than you are of him.” But I perceived the girls’ uneasiness as they climbed back into their bunks to get some shut eye before our morning meeting at the flagpole.

The next day, the trap snapped in one of the counselor’s rooms, and a triumphant caretaker hauled away the rat carcass while the girls were at their morning activities. I wondered if the campers would bounce back.

I’ll admit, at first the girls didn’t want to turn out the lights–ever. But if I learned anything that summer, it was to never underestimate kids. Soon, the girls bonded over their experience with the rat. They consoled one another and even cracked jokes.

Camp tradition included singing during meals in the mess hall. Anyone could start a song, and the low ceiling allowed campers to stand on their chairs and bang on it with their hands. One night at dinner, our campers sang their own ditty called “Lucifer,” the moniker they gave the deceased varmint. They sang, slapped their hands against the ceiling, and received a standing ovation. They had developed what I fondly call “ratsilience.”

The point of all of this is not to worry you. Don’t think if you send your child to overnight camp he or she is going to bunk with questionable vermin. No matter what challenges kids meet at camp, they usually face their fears, overcome obstacles, and leave with a new confidence. That’s the magic of camp; kids solve unexpected problems in ways that you and I can’t imagine, and they are the better for it.

I’ll never forget my summer with my campers and Lucifer, a pest who became our unofficial cabin mascot. He helped me learn that campers, and the parents who send them to sleepaway camp, are (deep breath) stronger than we may think.

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