(Excuse the melodramatic title, I’m just trying to be artsy).
I meant to write this post a few weeks back, but between finals, holiday events, and traveling between school and home, I couldn’t sit down long enough to let the words out.
As many Californians are keenly aware of, a sizable portion of our state was ravaged by wildfires this past November. One of the sites of the fires burned down a summer camp I had attended as a kid/teenager — Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop. The tremendous strength of the CHK and Hilltop community has become abundantly clear in the past few weeks, as evidenced by the Facebook page created to restore the camps, the emails promising that camp will go on, albeit at another site, and the stories I have heard from friends that I have kept in contact with.
CHK holds a very near and dear place in my heart, but likely not for the same reasons it did for others. Don’t get me wrong, I loved camp too — or at least the 25% of camp I actually experienced. As a deaf person, a mainstream summer camp is one of the hardest auditory environments to experience. It is a constant wash of auditory input that even the strongest of hearing aids can struggle to sort out. Mess hall chatter, hushed whispers after lights out, roaring but garbled chants, songs (and songs in another language), boomy microphones or worse yet, large crowds around one small person trying to yell out the schedule for the day, pool days (couldn’t get my hearing aids wet back in the day) — the list goes on.
I attended camp from age 8-15. I was 15 when I got my cochlear implant, due in large part, to camp.
Camp was thrilling, but utterly exhausting. Whatever thin strand of hope I had been clinging on to about how my hearing aids were sufficient was shredded into smithereens that first meal in the dining hall. Thanks to its fun, social atmosphere, camp literally offered me no respite from auditory input. It wasn’t like school, where I could come home, start playing The Sims™ and zone out for a while. I always had to be “on” and trying my best to sort out body language, context cues and lip-read. For the sake of keeping up with social cues, I would laugh when others would laugh, nod emphatically when someone seemed to be talking, smile during songs/cheers so it wouldn’t be obvious I had no idea what the words were, and avoid the pool/beach so I wouldn’t have to take out my hearing aids.
I didn’t exactly keep my hearing loss a secret. I would tell friends about my story so they could understand why I might behave weirdly during any of the events listed above. For the most part, people were very understanding and sweet. But what 8 year old is emotionally savvy enough to always remember their deaf friend when it is far more exciting to keep up with their non-deaf friends? I mean no shade towards anyone I attended camp with — it is a lot to ask of anyone, even full-grown adults. And despite this huge favor I asked of people, many of them did an excellent job trying to help me. One friend recently reminded me that she had kept a notebook for me, in which she would transcribe what was going on so I could keep up, a kindness beyond our age at the time.
It was camp that gave me the desire to hear better the way no other experience in my life had. Five years of being told I qualified for a cochlear implant and five years of rejecting it on the premise of feeling like cochlear implants were for people “more deaf than I was” were undone in 26 days — the length of my final summer as a camper at the age of 15. I finally wanted more for myself and I was finally okay with admitting that, all thanks to a camp that is no longer there anymore.
But I associate camp as a place of rebirth. Although I didn’t actually receive my implant at camp, I will forever correlate Camp Hess Kramer as the place where my life changed from the time before my implant to the time after my implant. I would not be anywhere close to where I am today if not for the realization that camp helped me come to.
Now, it is time for camp itself to start it’s second chapter. I have no doubt that camp will always continue to go on, and will always continue to make a change in the hearts of it’s campers. We could be in Malibu or we could be in the boonies, but camp is people, camp is a feeling, and camp is a fresh start. I owe my current life to my experiences at CHK 1.0, but CHK 2.0 — I can’t wait to meet you!