For Artsy Parents, Summer Camp Choice is Serious

NEEDHAM, Mass.  Joy Olivet-Scramm and Martin Scramm are creative types who survive in the notoriously impecunious world of the arts by holding down full-time jobs in academia, a double-life that lends an air of seriousness to their otherwise whimsical natures.  “Shaw said those who can, do, and those who can’t teach–but we do both!” Joy says as she waits with other parents for a tour of the grounds of a possible summer camp for their son Miles, 10, and daughter Daphne, 9, after a disappointing vacation placement last year.

“They said they’d teach our kids to be creative, but it was just lip service,” Martin says of his children’s experience at another camp with a focus on the arts.  “There was a lot of face-painting and sing-alongs–no rigor at all,” says the tenured professor at New England College, where he teaches introductory English and upper-level courses on Chaucer while moonlighting as a neo-formalist poet.

“Okay everybody–‘Lord of the Flies’ from the top.”

“It was glorified baby-sitting,” adds Joy, whose day job is executive director of the Boston Light Opera Company, but whose avocation is her all-female Gregorian Chant group, The Monotones.  “For the kind of money we spent, I’d expect the kids to learn some Shakespeare or at least Balanchine.”

And so the Scramms and four other groups of parents are here to learn more about Little Dickens Creative Camp, where camp counselors must be both certified Outward Bound instructors and hold a Master of Fine Arts degree.  “Other camps tell kids they’re all artists down deep inside,” says Rowley Merrick, who holds degrees a small liberal arts school in Ohio.  “We level with them, and let them know that no great art is produced without suffering.”

The focal point of the camp, like the swimmin’ hole at most others, is a 19th century factory straight out of the Industrial Revolution, where youngsters stay out of the sun (“It can cause skin cancer,” Merrick notes) and paste labels on bottles of boot blacking, just as Charles Dickens did for a brief time when his father was in debtor’s prison.  “It worked for Dickens,” notes Martin, “and I’d like to think a little of that creative ju-ju will rub off on our kids–along with a lot of inky black stuff.”

“Must stay awake–get boot blacking merit badge.”

Parents are treated to a video made by campers and counselors last summer, which shows children crying and begging their parents not to leave them at the camp on “drop-off day.”  “You’ve got to cut the apron strings firmly and decisively,” the voice-over narrator says.  “Little Dickens Creative Camp will teach your child that being an artist is hard and unrewarding work!”

The methods of Little Dickens fly in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy in the world of arts education, where technique is subordinated to enthusiasm and a Rousseau-like aesthetic philosophy that children are natural artists whose finger paintings will sell for big bucks if you can only get them in avant-garde galleries.

Head Counselor Mark Adamle can only laugh at this notion, as he leads parents through the main dining hall.  “Here’s where the kids enjoy their bread and milk for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

“Today we’re going to make gimp necklaces–for export to China.”

“Do you serve them dessert?” asks Amy Weinholtz, whose son has a number of allergies.

“Of course,” Adamle notes, hoping to allay her concerns, “but only if they catch a squirrel.”

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