I boarded the Metro North train at Grand Central Station on a humid Sunday in late June. Last stop Poughkeepsie and Vassar College, first stop Harlem and 125th Street, where I would meet four kids from StreetSquash, a Harlem-based urban youth enrichment program. When the train pulled up to the platform I saw Katie Siegel, Vassar graduate and former squash captain, who currently coaches and mentors at the StreetSquash facility. She quickly ushered four anxious, young teenagers with matching squash bags and assorted duffels onto the train.
This summer I had the privilege of coaching at Vassar College Squash Camp, a five-day-long overnight summer camp for squash players in their early teens. Like most college-based sports camps, the Vassar program gives students the chance to improve their athletic skills while getting a hint of college life. At many sports camps students come from similar backgrounds, but this camp would be different for certain, as the four campers from StreetSquash would join four other campers from various preparatory high schools in the Northeast.
When we arrived at the Poughkeepsie train station, we piled into a taxi van and headed to Vassar. After the StreetSquash campers got settled in their rooms, I waited for the other campers to arrive and check in. They came with their nervous parents and cars full of clothes, fans, bedding, and siblings. I will admit that I was slightly uneasy. How could there not be cliques, taking sides, and disagreements between the two seemingly different groups? For many of the StreetSquashers it was their first time away from home, yet the others were discussing their family trips to Europe. Some of the StreetSquashers had never attended an overnight camp while the other campers talked of their stays at previous summer camps in exotic locations.
Over the course of the week, the campers proved me wrong. Although initially they sat divided on the bleachers, once we put on Michael Jackson and gave the campers animal hats to wear while playing, everyone laughed together. Every day the three sessions of squash forced the campers to be each others’ teammates, opponents, referees, and coaches. Time on court taught them sportsmanship and courtesy, while time off court and in the dorms taught them friendship and community. Apparent differences, so obvious upon arrival, disappeared as one cohesive group of outstanding campers, squash players, and persons emerged. Even Hakim, who was unquestionably the quietest camper on arrival, put on a high-energy song and dance performance for the camp on the last day.
The campers reminded me that even though you are on court competing as an individual, you are always part of something larger: a team, a school, a squash community — a community.