It is mid-spring, and I am sitting in a coffee shop attempting to get organized for the week. Everything is great, besides the fact that I am incredibly camp-sick. Camp-sick is the phrase that I use to describe my longing for the summer- to be in the Northwoods of Wisconsin again with my best friends on the planet. I use this camp-sick phrase most often when talking through homesickness with some of the young, Cub Division campers. I make it very clear to them that while they are definitely going to miss their parents while they are away from home, these are completely normal feelings, its emotional toll pales in comparison to waiting 300 days each year for camp to return. A day does not go by where I am not thinking about Camp Highlands for Boys. Sometimes I feel bad for my non-camp friends who are with me when I start laughing to myself about camp happenings. It is impossible to accurately portray how important and deeply rooted my passion for Camp Highlands is.
I am going to attempt to explain why Camp Highlands’ message is so important to me, and why I feel it is an important message that all young people should have the opportunity to hear; why it ‘works’. While it’s impossible to isolate just one reason why Camp Highlands’ message is so important. It is simple, with opportunities for application at all hours of every day. In short, Camp Highlands’ message to me is about living and embodying the best version of oneself, to be someone who knows the difference between right and wrong and is firm in their steadfast commitment to doing the right thing even if no one will catch you doing the wrong thing. It is about putting others before yourself because you cannot go through life alone. The “I’m Third” motto is the base, but for many years it was too difficult a concept for me to understand in terms of what it actually means to ‘Live Third.’ You need people to live into the slogan for others to be able to understand how it truly looks. I am inspired by the examples that the men and women of Highlands have consistently displayed, from my childhood through the present.
It is very easy to be angry at the world–it can be an incredibly unfair place with nowhere for you to place your emotions, with no one to blame for your situation. This is an uncomfortable position to be in, and often one people are not sure how to navigate; no one practices handling uncomfortable/unfortunate situations. But, when you interact with people on a daily basis who are committed to living differently, who are committed to the growth of someone’s character, it is inspiring.
Each person adds their own ‘flare’ to what it means to be a Highlands Man/Woman–to live Third–and I am constantly developing my personal definition as well. Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: until you feel truly safe and secure in your situation, you are not able to step out of your comfort zone to make a mistake. This is the environment that Highlands is passionate about creating for its campers from the second that their parents leave them, whether that is at the camp bus stop, or on the stoop of their cabin. The Camp Highlands staff is committed to helping you navigate the difficult situations that you will inevitably confront as a young man via structured, safe, situations, as the boys are learning how to manage their independence for the first time. What will you do when there are high winds and you turtle your Sunfish sailboat? How will you choose to continue the hiking trip when you are hungry and you have blisters on both of your feet? These situations translate directly to real life where there is not one solution. There is something tangible about the energy at Camp Highlands- the vibe if you will. It is contagious, and a great lens to look at life through.
I am near the end of my first year as a teacher. I became a teacher because I wanted to be like my counselors at Camp, many of whom were teachers. I want to continue to come back to camp because there is nowhere else in the world where you can have an awe-inspiring conversation with a guy no older than 8 years old, and then immediately follow that with a story that has you on the ground laughing, told to you by a guy who is somewhere between 70 and 80 (but you are not quite sure because he has never answered you straight-up about it and you have been asking for 14 years). I digress.
One day, I had a police officer come speak in my classroom with my students, and one thing that he pointed out that made a ton of sense to me was that in today’s world, it is possible to find/see things on social media that anger you from the start of your day until you go to sleep. For example, you check Instagram and you see a picture that upsets you, then later in the day you follow a Twitter thread that makes you impossibly frustrated, you think Facebook may have something nice but since they were stealing your data it is just more of the same things that upset you earlier that day, and then at the end you check Snapchat only to see that the person you wanted to Snap you back opened your Snap 4 hours ago and did not respond. Sleep, Repeat. This is the reality of the current social media era that we are in. I know this because I see this with my 7th graders every day.
If you are never shown another way, if you never have a role model who lives their life different from this, anger may be the most common emotion that you experience (self-doubt, self-loathing, confusion, etc.). I was very angry as a child. That is why Camp Highlands is important now more than ever. All of the 7th graders in my school could benefit from having Shaun Trenholm (ST) remind them that the difference between doing a good and great job at something is about 10 minutes. All of the parents in the world would benefit from watching the most senior counselor at camp hang out with the youngest campers at camp without any technology (for the last 25+ years) and continue to work to relate to them, to be stern when appropriate, but to provide each camper with the opportunity to make their own mistakes even when society tells us that these children are too young to truly know the impact of their personal decision-making.
Even though I hate that stinking pot that Kent bangs at 5:55 am on the Thursday mornings after a Division Day Cubbie overnight, we have 7-year-olds taking down tents and being responsible for ensuring that we leave our space better than we found it. These opportunities are authentic, and they are crucial to a young person’s growth and development, especially in adolescence. Even though I was struggling with Calculus during my senior year of high school, it was a challenge that I chose to take on because I had the personal confidence of having completed a 7-day, 100+ mile hiking trip in Isle Royale through Camp Highlands the previous summer. I was given a safe opportunity to experience some of the purest, strongest, most difficult emotions that I had ever felt to that point. I also learned the power of perseverance, and how far I was able to push myself mentally to achieve what I set out to; there was no other choice.
Thus, in a world where it is so easy to be angry and to remain angry, to see people who choose to live in opposition of this negativity is why I feel that Camp Highlands’ message is so important, and why it is so important to me. Without the examples that the Highlands men before me displayed, I am not sure where I would be today… who would I look up to? Who would be my group of friends that I would go to first when my parents got divorced? I do not know, but I am glad that this is just hypothetical. In truth, I became a teacher so that I could continue to work at Camp Highlands.
I am so grateful for the opportunities that my parents gave to me being a camper for 8 years and beyond, and I am so thankful that people like the Bachmanns, Kent Overby, Craig Erickson, and Lois Craig prioritize character development over anything.
Trust the process. I’m Third.
Seth Fox (this is my 14th summer at Camp, I am from Wilmette, IL, and my favorite activity is footsketball).