The big speech


It’s hard for me to believe that second session will be over in just a few days; this summer has gone by incredibly fast.     On a tour this morning we stopped to talk with one of our TM campers who was writing her TM speech on a bench overlooking the waterfront. I asked her to tell the touring family what a TM speech is and why it was important to her. She told us that at the end of the summer each TM camper writes a speech that they deliver to the camp at the final campfire. The speech is the culmination of their time as a camper at Birch Trail and their advice for the campers who remain. However, the true meaning is that in writing the speech and reflecting back on her seven years as a camper at Birch Trail she has realized the tremendous impact camp has had on her and the person that she has become over that seven years.

Public speaking can be a challenge for some campers; the fact that our campers put their heart and soul into these speeches makes this task less of a challenge and more of a heartfelt plea. It not only helps them learn the skill of public speaking but allows them to start processing their overall camp experience. For our younger campers they can start to shape a perspective of camp and realize that the experience will come to an end one day. It’s an emotional night, but one that is filled with lots of great lessons and stories.   I’ve got my box of Kleenex ready and the rest of camp does too.

Our guest blogger today is a BT alum and mother of two former BT campers and staff members. She has a great blog post about the lesson she and her daughters learned at camp:

I came to Birch Trail in 1965 as a Lower Linden, eleven years old, the eldest of three children, born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. Birch Trail was an all eight week camp then (everyone stayed for eight weeks), so I had four full summers as a camper, one as a CIT (counselor in training) and four as a counselor, before I graduated from college and ended my Birch Trail summers. I tried everything while I was at camp — all the activities, wilderness trips, singing, canoeing, and testing the limits. At home, being the eldest, I was busy setting a “good example” for my younger siblings. At camp, I was one of the youngest, so all bets were off! It took me a few summers in the safe environment at Birch Trail to realize that there was a happy medium between being a perfect role model and being a rapscallion. Thanks to Jerry Baer (the founder of Birch Trail) and the other counselors for guiding my energy toward maturity.


            I took sailing many times as a camper, but it was the summer when my counselors took me out in the sailboats and taught me as we were actually sailing, that I really learned to sail.

And that summer really set me on the course of my career, though, of course, I didn’t know it then. “Learning by doing” is the way I have approached teaching, both in my fifteen years of preschool teaching and my work in first and second grade classrooms for the last fifteen years. And so, as an educator, when it came time to consider camp for my own daughters, I had additional lenses to look through before I would decide that Birch Trail continued to be the right choice for our family.


            What was I looking for? Of course, I wanted the connection to the North woods and nature. I valued the communal living in cabins and the chance for my daughters to experience a different part of the country. I wanted them to be comfortable without all the comforts of home and to have a sense of independence. An experience of sisterhood and strong female friendships were important as well. All of these had been part of my experience as a camper and counselor at Birch Trail. I also contemplated how Birch Trail had changed in the 21st century.


As an adult, I was living in California, married to a man from India, with two Indian-American daughters. I was hoping that Birch Trail would be as welcoming and safe a place for them as it had been for me. I had concerns about the tradition of Pow Wow Day, both for the unhealthy competition it engendered among the oldest girls, as well as the confusing and disrespectful way Native Americans were portrayed. I wondered how Birch Trail was addressing these issues.


I had attended the 1986 transitional reunion with Jerry and Richard and the 2000 reunion. I felt that Richard had embraced Birch Trail’s essence, with his special brand of warmth and compassion, while at the same time he had moved camp forward by directly addressing the aspects of independence and emotional intelligence. Barbara reassured me that “We are all the same on the inside.” And she and Richard and Gabe were intent on making the camp more diverse, so campers would have a chance to meet girls who came from different cultural backgrounds. We lost Richard before my daughters came to Birch Trail, but Gabe and Barbara have continued to make sure that Birch Trail accepts and embraces all of the campers.


As an educator, I see many aspects of modern life that prevent children from developing resilience, courage and independence. Often, parents feel they must solve children’s problems for them, be they social, emotional or academic. Kids don’t get a chance to struggle, to fail, to fall down and figure out for themselves how to get up and keep going. We want to smooth their way, remove obstacles. But those obstacles, those mistakes, are when real learning and growth occur. And camp is the perfect place for girls to get this kind of opportunity. They get to try new activities, challenge themselves to be courageous, and succeed in ways they never dreamed of. After mastering something new, living away from home, even when she feels homesick sometimes, weathering a conflict among friends, canoeing in the Boundary Waters, through soreness and fatigue — after all that, a girl knows that she is courageous. She knows she can do it. And it spills over into all areas of her life. When challenges arise, she has courage in the bank. She can put it to use. My older daughter went to school on the East coast; she was confident in her own skills. Once, late at night, she called me to say there was a bat loose in her house and all her roommates were asleep. ” What shall I do, Mom?” (more like”MOMMMM OMG THERE IS A BAT IN MY ROOM HELLLLP!!!!!!!”)

I replied, “What would you do at camp?”

            “At camp, I would be brave!”

Even though she didn’t feel like being brave, she knew she could do it. That confidence is what Birch Trail gave me long ago and what it has given to my daughters. I feel so fortunate that my daughters have loved Birch Trail as much as I did and that I have been able to offer them this camp experience.

When I come back to Birch Trail now, I see the changes, but the feel of the camp is the same. When I walk along the well traveled path to Tamarack Village or out to the Point, nothing has changed: the feel of the sand and stones under my feet, the whisper of the trees, and the smell of the lake and the pine trees are familiar and eternal. Some traditions remain; some have evolved; but the real essence of Birch Trail remains for us old timers, for the current campers, and for future generations of Birch Trail girls yet to come.

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