[This week my sons return for their second stay at an overnight camp. That gives me serious empty nest syndrome, but more relevantly it also gives us an opportunity for some Summer CampStudying! Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the summer camp experiences, stories, and perspectives of fellow AmericanStudiers.]
On the unique summer camp without which there’d be no AmericanStudier.
The van was, to the best of my recollection, entirely ordinary. Just a van. The movies that we watched while driving in that van were, although I can only remember one specific title (the forgotten ‘80s classic Space Camp ), nothing earth-shattering either. Just mediocre kids’ entertainment. The lunches that we ate at our various destinations, likewise. The counselor to camper ratio was, while probably well within state requirements, nothing special; I think there were around 12 of us at a time, and just the one counselor. As summer camps go, these basic details might make this one sound pretty average at best. But Camp Virginia most definitely changed my life.
Recently a colleague asked me what had inspired my dual passions for American literature and American history, and in my answer I focused on a couple core elements of my childhood: being raised by two parents who cared deeply about reading and writing; and growing up in Virginia, surrounded by all that history (especially of the Revolutionary and Civil War eras). But when it comes to the latter, of course many tens of thousands of kids grew up in Virginia during the same period as I, and I doubt that many of them were similarly inspired by its treasure troves of historical goodness. And while my parents without question would have introduced me to those troves, the most foundational introductions were those provided by Mr. Kirby. Ronald Kirby was my fourth-grade teacher at Charlottesville’s Johnson Elementary School, and I’m sure he did a great job in that role, but for me he’ll always be the founder, sole counselor, chauffeur, lunch maker, movie selector and starter, 7-11 bathroom demander (a long and funny story that I can’t possibly replicate here, but it’s a good one, trust me), and above all guide and teacher and historian and mentor, of Camp Virginia.
Every summer (well, I did it for two straight summers, but I think he ran it every summer for many years before and after that as well), Mr. Kirby would offer week-long Camps, each one focused on a different historical topic (mainly the Revolution and the Civil War, but I imagine there were variations and other topics too). Each day we’d drive to a couple of historical sites, and while I do still (kinda) remember the van and the movies and the lunches, it’s those visits and sites that really stand out for me. But not even the sites, many of which I’ve been to numerous other times as well. It’s the aura that stands out for me, the ambience, the ways that Mr. Kirby could, with a well-chosen anecdote or detail, with attention to a particular spot or artifact or story, with his very enthusiasm and passion and interest, undimmed after however many years and visits and campers, make the history come alive for me and, in so doing, make me come more fully alive as a student, a historian, a Virginian, an American. It’s no exaggeration to say that at the end of those weeks I was hooked, was destined for a life (in whatever profession or discipline) in which history would always be a major destination.
I don’t have any idea how much Camp Virginia cost—and I have to figure that Mr. Kirby barely broke even, what with the van and gas and admissions fees and the like—but if I learn of anything even vaguely similar as my boys grow up, there’s nothing I wouldn’t pay to give them the same kinds of experiences. It’s not about loving history per se—of course I’d love if they do, but they’ve got to find their own passions, influenced I’m sure by mine and their Mom’s and New England and many other factors but ultimately and very rightly their own—but about coming alive, about being brought to places that change their worlds and broaden their horizons and help shape them into the men they’ll become. Not bad for an ordinary van. Next camp context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Summer camp stories you’d share or histories you’d highlight?
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