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Reading After Taps
It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever been around boys aged 8-15 that a Pemi day includes lots of noise. From shouts of excitement (or groans of frustration in Senior Camp) at Reveille to joyous Mess Hall singing to raucous laughter during Bean Soup, sound fills Pemi days. Yet as the sun sets at the far end of Lower Bake Pond, darkness descends on our valley, and the final note of Taps lingers in the air, quiet and calm replace the cacophony of the day. If you’re standing outside on Intermediate Hill or down in Junior Camp, you’ll notice how quickly the boys have settled down, and then, as you walk in front of each cabin, you’ll hear a single voice from inside each one, marking the daily start of one of Pemi’s best, yet often unheralded traditions: counselors reading to their cabins at bedtime.
This wonderful practice dates back to the earliest days of camp, and while the titles may have changed, the simple and profound nature of it remains the same. With campers safely ensconced under their covers and mosquito nets, the counselor turns off the cabin light, turns on his headlamp, and picks up the story wherever they left off the previous night. For the next 20 minutes or so, most boys listen raptly – some drift right off to sleep after a full Pemi day – as their counselor continues the journey. This shared act of listening to a story draws cabins closer and, for many, helps recreate a semblance of nightly rituals from home. It’s the perfect combination of developmentally appropriate, comforting, helpful for settling a group down, and just plain fun. Oftentimes boys will move quickly (yet thoroughly, of course) through the process of getting ready for bed, rush back from brushing their teeth, and tuck themselves in prior to Taps in order to get a few extra minutes of the story in.
Reading after Taps takes place nightly in all Junior, Lower, and Upper cabins. The younger boys have no hesitation whatsoever in embracing the practice, and the only struggle in Junior Camp typically revolves around which book to read. Counselors might choose from Pemi’s own well-stocked library, they may have planned ahead and brought a book of their own, or they may accept suggestions from amongst the books the boys packed for the summer. With a book selected, the cabin will spend the next several weeks moving through the story together. Counselors tend to pick books that no one in the cabin has read yet, but even if one boy knows how the tale ends, Pemi culture ensures that he keeps the secrets to himself. The choices range from decades-old favorites such as The Phantom Tollbooth to newer selections like the Spy School series. Many counselors use the “red-light” feature on their headlamps to keep bugs at bay while they read, and so moving through Junior Camp at night you can see the red glow from cabins and hear six stories quietly unfolding before enthralled audiences.
Strolling in front of the Lower cabins, you can hear the action of a Percy Jackson adventure, a clever one-liner from Artemis Fowl, or a classic scene from The Hobbit. Bursts of laughter often rupture the quiet as particularly theatrical counselors indulge their campers and add in dramatic or silly voices to fully bring the characters to life. Other counselors adopt a more soothing narration, especially when they know their campers need that extra bit of calm to help them wind down. It’s especially fun to hear the mix of accents as Pemi counselors from around the U.S. and the globe regale their campers. You might hear the sing-song voice of a Welshman float out of Lower 5 followed by the booming brashness of a New Yorker a few cabins down. Around 9:25 it’s not uncommon to hear pleaded whispers of “five more minutes” or “just one more chapter” as the counselor wraps up for the night. That earnest desire to hear more provides yet another piece of evidence, not that one was needed, of the continued magic of this tradition.
For the Uppers – 13- and 14-year-olds – some coaxing might occur to drive buy-in, but invariably even they come to cherish the practice. To help keep the tradition fresh, some Upper counselors have taken to sharing the privilege of actually doing the reading with their campers. Walking by Upper 3 last summer, you might have heard the counselor sounding out the voices of Harry, Ron, and Hermione one night, but the next evening a camper would have Harry Potter in hand and would read a chapter to his peers. This small tweak gives the boys ownership in line with their maturity, keeps the reading lively, and solidifies cabin unity when the counselor joins his campers in sitting back and listening to the story. Many Seniors, who have time after Taps to hang out with each other or read on their own, will quietly confess to occasionally missing having a book read to them each night.
After the hustle and bustle of a fun-filled and active Pemi day, the act of settling in to be transported into the world of a novel provides the perfect transition to calmness. Those of us lucky enough to walk around Junior Camp or Intermediate Hill right after Taps cherish hearing the power and beauty of such a simple tradition. Alumni decades removed from their final summers at Pemi commonly mention reading after Taps as one of the highlights that has stuck with them from their camper days. In a world moving ever-more online and ever-faster, the simple joy of listening to a good book read to you by your counselor remains, more than 100 years on, one of the hallmarks of the Pemi experience.
– Pat Clare
P.S. – Want to read more about reading after Taps? Several previous authors addressed it, including Tom Reed, Jr. in this beautiful piece from 2011 and Danny Kerr in this 2015 newsletter. Thanks to Tom and Danny for their inspiration for this 2023 version!