In the summer that followed 8th grade, my friend Sabrina and I went to a two-week creative writing camp in Wallingford, Connecticut. The camp was held at Choate Rosemary Hall, a large boarding school about half an hour away from New Haven. The experience quickly turned into the most memorable two weeks of my life before high school.
The creative writing class was taught at the Andrew Mellon library, an old, colonial-style structure on the north side of campus. There were six classrooms in the library, and each hosted groups of fifteen students, most of whom were rising freshmen. Each group was led by a teacher, who taught us important skills like creating realistic dialogue, fluid language, and multi-dimensional characters. My teacher, Donna, was an older, ginger-haired woman who talked with a slight southern drawl and dressed like an office secretary from the 1970s. She was truly enthusiastic about literature, and unlike most conventional English teachers, she strongly encouraged the use of explicit language “if and only if it more successfully conveys your story’s tone.” Donna liked to assign us two narratives a day as homework, which was why everyone in my dorm usually stayed up past midnight on a regular basis.
As part of the summer camp requirements, everyone had to attend a daily physical fitness class before dinner. I signed up for the running group. The running session took place at the track, which was isolated from the rest of the campus on a high hill surrounded by miles of thick forest. Only four other people had signed up for running, and our instructor instantly realized that making us run sprints and relays every day would quickly get boring. Instead, we played what could probably be considered the world’s most intense game of hide-and-seek-tag. The “it” person counted out loud to twenty five, and everyone else had unlimited options to pick a hiding spot from. Usually, we would sprint up the long hill and into the dark forest swamped with fallen redwoods, sapling-covered ground, and dangerously low-hanging branches. Our boundaries included two soccer fields, a football field, the track, and one square mile of wild trees and shrubs, and as a result our daily games turned into frenzied chases through the woods and exhausting runs up and down the big incline that separated the red dirt track from the first soccer field. There was a good deal of of fence-hopping, tree-climbing, and bleacher-scaling throughout the hour. I always returned to my dorm looking like I'd had been sliced up by a box cutter.
Most dormitories at Choate housed a range of twenty to sixty students, but my dorm only housed six. It looked like a stereotypical barn with rusty red paint, a boxcar shape, and a farmhouse roof. The dorm was built in 1890, and had been appropriately named Bungalow for its small size compared to every other dorm on campus. My roommate’s name was Virginia; she was perky and sandy-haired, and her dream was to sing and dance on Broadway after high school. Nobody in Bungalow doubted these ambitions, especially after hearing her deliver a near perfect rendition of the Wicked soundtrack. Every evening, food trucks would park on the main avenue outside the dining hall between 10-11pm; this event was known as “Vendors.” Vendors was one of the biggest social scenes at camp. Everyone converged from across campus to try the ice cream truck, the Chinese takeout taxi, the pizza van, or the Subway cart. When the hour was over and the vendors had packed up and left, all the students would return to their dorms to finish their daily homework assignments.
Choate’s dining hall looked like a modernized version of the Greek Parthenon with its white marble columns at the entrance bordered by brick walls and grid-like rectangular windows. Inside, dozens of round, wooden tables filled the space. The food buffet was in a separate room, where chefs were constantly running around refilling serving trays with barbecue, spaghetti, steak, salad, pizza, fruit, and lemon bars. At the end of the first week, the school hosted International Food Day. Five long tables crowded the central aisle in the dining hall; each table was draped in endless rows of vibrant flags representative of a specific continent. Campers swarmed around the tables eagerly, trying unusual dishes like samosas, egg rolls, and sushi at the Asia station, burritos and enchiladas at the Central/South America station, goulash and crepes at the Europe station, roti and falafels at the Middle East station, and gourmet salads from the extravagant salad bar at the vegetarian table. The atmosphere in the dining hall was always lively.
Like in a normal academic week, all campers took the weekends off. During this time, Sabrina and I would take advantage of the many free field trips the school offered. The first weekend, we went on a field trip to New York City, which was a two-hour bus ride from Choate. The best part of our day was going to Dylan’s Candy Bar, the notoriously large candy shop in Midtown. Inside, the walls were painted with every imaginable color to match the unending candy selection. Intricately crafted shapes hung from the ceiling like mobiles, each one composed of different types of candy in radiant wrappers. A shiny staircase led up to more rooms with endless racks of candy bars, gum drops, lollipops, and caramel. Against one wall, someone had set up a bright purple waterfall made from dozens of Wonka chocolate bars. My friends and I bought so much candy that at the end of the day, we were thoroughly exhausted but extremely satisfied with our first visit to New York.
I could continue describing the amazing new friends I made, the vast campus, the trips to Mr. D’s Ice Cream Parlor, or the day when Sabrina and I tried to apply for library cards at the Wallingford Public Library (but got rejected), but no amount of recounting stories would ever be enough to fully summarize how outstanding the experience was. Although my summer at Choate was eight years ago, I remember every detail as if it happened yesterday. I still keep in touch with my roommates Virginia and Cecilia, and our lasting friendships make the time I spent at Choate even more meaningful.