Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Summer Camp©♥

By David G. Blumenkrantz

Part I – The Initiation of a Camper

A young boy sits excitedly on a hillside as the twilight envelops him. It is the first Sunday evening in July 1962. He expectantly waits, peering into the distance, watching for them. First, he hears the soft rhythm of the bells; smoke from burning torches curl into the twilight. Then, across the field he sees feathers shaking with the cadence of their approach. In silent single file, the tribe1 walks to the foot of the hill, stands in a semicircle around the fire pit, and faces the gathering of the campers on the hill. A large totem pole and stone altar flank the semi-circle and shimmer in the fading light, beginning to come to life. The camp is still. All eyes watch in wonder. 

Holding a blazing torch, the medicine man steps toward the large, carefully crafted tiered box-fire structure, awaiting the torch’s touch and ignition. He waves the torch in figure eights, honoring each of the four directions. Deep black smoke billows forth into the sky, the smell of kerosene fills the air. His salutations with the torch ceremonially summon the Great Spirit to enter the sacred space through the campfire. The firewood, holding the energy from a billion years ago, springs to life with the kiss of the flaming torch.   

Songs, dances, and stories reenact parts of the tribe’s, birth and life in the wilderness. They tell from where the tribe came and how they live—what their purpose is and how they are unselfish in service, devoted to the welfare of others, trustworthy, courteous, helpful, and dedicated in spirit to spreading brotherhood. They alone can wear the order of the arrow. They alone have been initiated into their place in the unfolding of the universe.

The drum sounds strong—“Thump! Thump! Thump!”—at the end of the ceremony. “The Picking of the Pledge!” the medicine man announces. Slowly, he begins to dance to the drum.  Heel, toe, heel, toe, heel, toe, thump, thump, thump. Clutching an arrow in one hand, he circles the gathering on the hill, searching among the campers and counselors for the next member of the tribe. Who will be worthy to take the oath? Who will be able to endure the ordeal of initiation? Who will walk the walk and talk the talk of the tribe, and set an example of an exemplary human being? The entire camp holds its collective breath. Thump, thump, thump, heel, toe, heel, toe, heel, toe. 

Finally, he leaps over one startled camper. A loud yell comes from his mouth.  “Ayyyyeee!!!” Eyes closed, head pointed to the heavens, he stands howling over the unexpecting initiate, the arrow held high over his head between his strong hands. Two braves from the tribe run toward the initiate, grab him under both arms, and drag him off into the woods. Younger campers rise to their knees. Their mouths are open; they stare wide-eyed after the novice being dragged off. Nervous laughter and chatter erupt. Suddenly there is silence. The drum begins again. The hunt continues for another initiate.

For years that little boy sat on the hill, watching the story of his life unfold before him.  He yearned to be picked, to be initiated into the tribe. The hill became smaller as the summers passed and the boy grew with the stories of the tribe. The cycle of the ceremonies drew the camp together and each youth yearned in his heart to be initiated, to become someone and part of the great mysteries and lore of the tribe.

Then, one night, as the campfire burned down and the embers glowed in the dark, the drums once again called out, “Thump, thump, thump, the picking of the pledge.” The medicine man began his search among the gathering on the hill for the new initiate. 

The boy looked into the fire. Staring straight into the light of the fire, the drum resonated within the boy’s heart. He dreamed about the week of initiation and belonging to the tribe.  There were the stories. But only the initiates and the members of the tribe knew the reality of the events of initiation week and life in the tribe. He knew the initiates ate small amounts of food during the week, and for a whole day ate nothing at all. He knew because he witnessed their community service projects and the day they had to go without speaking. The candidate had to walk in the garments of the tribe—a headband with no feathers, leggings with no bells or beads, always carrying a look of dedication and solemnity for an entire week. They chanted to themselves the songs of authenticity, integrity and the values that they would have to accept and live out as a member of the tribe. Their initiation deeply ingrained these values into them. Values that enabled the child to grow into an adult who would be of service to the tribe and Mother Earth. This we knew to be true.

The greatest mystery was the Night of the Ordeal.  It was told, and he witnessed it once, that, in the middle of the night, members of the tribe came and snatched the initiates from their bunks. They would bring them deep into the woods, where the tribe was gathered. Around a fire they’d tell the secrets of the tribe and sing the sacred traditional songs, instructing the initiates in the ways of the tribe. Then they would bring them to a secret cave, where they stayed—alone—for the rest of the night.

The drum beat on as the boy gazed ahead, dreaming into the fire. Suddenly, his heart was pierced with the sound of a scream that seemed to come from within every molecule in his body. He saw the medicine man leap over a boy in front of him, then, with another earth shattering scream, leap over him. He did not turn to look; he was too scared. His heart raced as he saw the two braves dash off into the gathering to fetch the new initiate. In an instant, he felt a great pressure in both arms. His shoulders felt like they were being pulled up into the sky. Before he knew what had happened, he saw himself, like in a picture, being dragged off the hill. Still, he thought he was dreaming into the fire. Finally, his dream became his life.

The boy grew to be a man, his heart full of compassion, still beating with the rhythm of initiation. He brought with him the dream of initiation and the power of feeling a sense of belonging. That night, during initiation, he felt the love of Mother Earth and a sense of true belonging to a tribe that talked of honor, respect, trustworthiness, love, and devotion to helping others.  This is what he witnessed, this is what he knew. This is the story that drove the boy’s life, steering his course toward manhood.  This is what made that boy this man.


This was one of several significant initiatory experiences with which I have been blessed throughout my life. It awakened within me a degree of attunement and attention to the process of initiation, and its importance and impact on children and the community. My boyhood dreams of initiation turned into a reality that continues to unfold as this man’s life. Throughout undergraduate and graduate school, I had no academic encounter with the process of initiation. While it was something powerful that I had experienced, by this time, and in several significant ways that you will read about, I did not find a trace of its existence in any of the literature presented to me in my formal, traditional education.

Education is presumably designed to prepare you for productive engagement with the world.  “Real education,” as Viscountess Nancy Astor said, “should educate us out of self into something far finer—into selflessness that links us with all humanity.”

College and professional graduate school narrows your focus and trains you in a specific discipline so you can be a disciple and practice it for your own good and for the good of others. While I gained substantial knowledge to build a suitable foundation in the field of psychology and education, upon emerging from school, I felt woefully inadequate to meet the challenges of youth services. While book learning filled my head with facts, figures, and knowledge, it was devoid of experiences that led to wisdom. How could I truly help young people who crave experience of the world when I did not possess wisdom? Wisdom, I later found out, comes from the experiences of one’s life, especially as they are told, heard, and lived through stories.

... a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were telling a story.
Jean-Paul Sartre


At the time, the events of a hot Thursday afternoon in June 1971 did not present any special significance. It was my tenth summer at Camp Wamsutta, a sleep-away camp for 150 youths aged 6-15. After working for three years as a junior counselor and three years as a senior counselor, it was my first year as the Assistant Director. Two days before the campers arrived, in the camp tradition, on that uneventful Thursday, two dump truck loads of sand were deposited on the beach of the lake at the camp.

From across America and Europe, the counselors arrived several days before the campers.  They brought with them all the vast diversity and differences of the world. What is perfectly clear now, but was not then, was that they needed to quickly coalesce into a tightly knit group in order to work together and ensure the success of the camp season. They arrived early to clean up the entire camp, straighten up “their” cabins (of course, eight campers would sleep there too!), prepare the particular activity of which each was in charge (such as archery, horseback riding, sailing), and rake out the two large mountains of sand that were deposited on the beach of the lake at the camp.

During the better part of a day, all the staff labored together against the two enormous mountains of sand. For hours, no matter how many wheelbarrows of sand we moved from those two large mountains of sand, the piles just seemed to get bigger. Jokes and laughter filled the day.  Climbing up the sand mountains and creating new ways to test gravity and the flexibility of the human body was interrupted by frequent, uncontrollable bouts of falling into the lake to cool off.  In the dwindling light of dusk, the last grains of sand were carefully raked into place on the beach of the lake at the camp.

Gazing upon the beautiful white sand that sparkled under the last light of the sun, the counselors stood together, connected by their efforts. It was apparent that each one of them took a special pride, delight, and satisfaction from their shared accomplishment. Each had come from a different part of the world, but now, for the first time, they began to stand as one team. For the first time, they stood together—bonded as a group—on the beach of the lake at the camp. On the sand they labored over to make a place for themselves and their charges.


♥ © David G. Blumenkrantz, Ph.D. 1992
1 Among the first counselors at the camp in the late 1940’s were 2 brothers from the Delaware Indian tribe. Legend has it that these brothers took the traditions from their tribe and combined them with the Order of the Arrow lodge, a Boy Scout program begun in 1915 to form the traditions and rituals of Tribe by the Lake.