July 3, 2017
You may not know this, but on Lake LBJ, an epic battle of Hellenic heroes rages each summer:
The Camp Champions Trojan-Spartan games.
Since 1967, campers have been initiated into one of these two tribes on the first Saturday during a special ceremony. They will then compete three different times for 2-3 hours each to see who will triumph.
When we bought the camp, almost all of camp seemed focused on competition – boys vs girls, Rookies vs Letterman, cabin vs cabin. While this appealed to some highly competitive campers, it was not a great way to run a camp. First (and most importantly), it did not appeal to a large number of campers. Second, competition is a lazy way to organize a group of campers. Excellent counselor should be able to motivate a cabin without making everything a competition with other cabins. Finally, we wanted campers to learn collaboration and cooperation as well as competitiveness.
But we also like having elements of camp that are competitive. After all, elements of the “real world” are competitive, so we want campers to develop comfort with competition and competitive situations.
Trojan Spartan games fit this bill perfectly. For the 2-3 hours we are competing, we encourage the campers to do so with verve and enthusiasm. We want them to learn to lose with dignity and win with humility.
Also, the games are fun – ranging from silly activities (how many campers can balance on a glob covered in dish soap) to traditional games (like tug-a-war) to thoughtful ones (trivia).
The initiation ceremony happened on Saturday and it is an odd thing to observe. Returning campers “paint up” in their team colors (blue for Trojans, red for Spartans), and gather at the Coliseum. The new initiates walk through a group of Senior Campers holding tiki torches to “learn their fate”. [Note: once initiated, you are on the same team for life – whenever I meet former campers I always ask their team affiliation and they almost always remember.]
The ceremony officiate announces the campers’ names and their team, whereupon a cloaked figure who is painted half blue and half red will mark the newly minted Spartan or Trojan in his team colors. The girls do their initiation slightly differently, but the essence is the same. The only really important difference is the fact that none of the women are bald enough (or foolish enough) to recreate the paint-master.
Even I get into the act as the Elder.
After everyone is initiated, I read the Trojan-Spartan legend (Menelaus, Helen, Paris and the Trojan Horse) and then share a few words. I extol them to be spirited competitors, but also great sportsman. I conclude by saying that “after the games end, we are Trojans and Spartans no more, but once again cabinmates and brothers.”
They then go to learn the chants and signs of their team.
I explain to the counselors that camp is a magic show. This ceremony is a perfect example of this. On one level, we are bunch of people in central Texas, covered in paint, listening to music from Last of the Mohicans (the team entry music) and talking about ancient Mediterranean legends. Looking at it this way, the event hovers somewhere between silly and foolish.
But if we do it well, the ceremony creates a majestic experience for the campers. For a moment, they feel a sense of excitement and even awe. When they learn their tribe and hear the cheers of their teammates, they feel a sense of belonging.
On Saturday, the magic show was great.
On Sunday, we had a spirited and close competition with the Trojans taking the first lead.
The epic battle continues!