It’s finally cold in Houston tonight! And so I will write about summer camp!
I discovered that I am not a camper around the fourth grade. (Illustration: carrots at summer camp age.) It took only a few nights in the wood-floored canvas tents at Camp Pokanoka in Illinois to convince me that the adventures and the supposed lifelong friendships forged over charred marshmallows promised in glossy brochures were not going to happen for me. Instead, I would miss home fiercely while enduring the indignity of singing songs about “cleaning the latrine til it’s sparkle-y clean!”
I know that many people have fond memories of hiking trails and crafts and cheerily racist cabin names. These campers cry as counselors direct the stragglers onto the bus home. I was packed two days early.
One of the most demoralizing moments of camp was the swimming test. I was confident about this test. Like my brothers, I had taken the obligatory swimming lessons early in life, beginning with kick boards and nervous, bent-kneed dives off the edge of the pool and graduating to epic games of Marco Polo in the deep end. I was never one of those Speedo-clad swim teamers, but I could hold my own and, in an emergency, I could tread water interminably. When I barefooted it down to Lake Pokanoka, then, I expected to earn my swimmer’s badge — the lifeguard’s sign-off that entitled me to enjoy the deeper swimming area.
Perhaps it was nerves. Perhaps my unique breaststroke suggested “drowning!” rather than grace to the judges. But somehow I ended up roped off with those few unfortunate children who, despite their near-middle-school status, were wearing floaties. I WAS STUCK WITH THE FLOATIES KIDS. It was unjust. I spend most of the afternoons meant for swimming dangling my toes into the deep end from the safety of the pier, silently comparing my own aquatic prowess to the clumsy splashing of those campers who had somehow lucked their way into the deep end. I concluded that the system was rigged.
I remember Camp Pokanoka, then, as a place where I was misunderstood. Reading my swimming evaluation the evening after my test, I felt for one of the first times in my life the useless frustration of knowing I had been underestimated and undervalued. I still find that one of the most disheartening feelings I know — the stomach-sinking realization that my best efforts can lead to nothing.
And this is why I was thinking about summer camp tonight, even though it’s 30 degrees outside. The potential for swimming test failure is one of the reasons the academic job market is so frightening. The cast certainly changes. The teenager wearing cargo shorts and holding a clipboard who exiled me to the shallows is replaced by a search committee of five faculty members who, I truly believe, have the best interests of their university or college at heart. But this is a test in which hundreds of qualified applicants are necessarily turned down, often before they have the chance to display their talents at all.
My run on the market this year is going better than expected, and it’s certainly not over yet. I’ve decided to remain optimistic. But sometimes I feel like I’m back on the pier, except this time I’m competing against Michael Phelps, so the lifeguards decide that they don’t really need to see me in the water.